Nations leaves Bi-State agency with mission focused on regional cooperation
John Nations is stepping down after eight years as president and CEO of Bi-State Development — the agency that operates the Metrolink public transit system among other regional services.
Taulby Roach, a longtime transportation consultant for St. Clair County, is expected to succeed Nations as Bi-State’s next president and CEO, although the board has not made an official announcement.
In 2010, Nations was in his third term as mayor of Chesterfield when he successfully led a campaign in St. Louis County to approve a half-cent sales tax that would provide much-needed funding for public transit. The tax contributed $75 million a year to Bi-State’s budget.
Later that year, when John Nations interviewed for the job of president and CEO of Bi-State, he already had a vision for the company that was known as “Metro” back then.
“Bi-State was originally incorporated to be a regional economic development resource and facilitator for the region,” Nations said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio in October.
“Frankly, people are surprised to hear it wasn't incorporated to be a public transit company at all. It was chartered by Congress actually in 1950 to help with regional economic development. My goal when I started out was, I viewed Bi-State as a tremendous potential regional resource at a time when we need regionalism in St. Louis.”
Nations’ first order of business when he took the helm, was to re-brand “Metro” to its original name: Bi-State Development.
In addition to the Metrolink train, bus and Call-a-Ride public transit system, Bi-State owns and operates St. Louis Downtown Airport in Sauget and the Arch Riverboats. It also operates the Gateway Arch Revenue Collections Center and the Arch trams.
St. Louis Freightway District
During his tenure, Nations added to that portfolio by creating a Bi-State Development Research Institute for a more data-driven approach to economic development projects.
But the project he said he is most proud of is the creation of the St. Louis Regional Freightway district.
“St. Louis has tremendous assets from our freight and logistics point of view,” Nations said. “We've got the railroads, we've got the ports, we've got airport capacity. We're connected with four interstate highway systems. And yet, the freight and logistics industry in St. Louis was not getting the traction or having the growth that many people thought it might have.”
The Freightway is a business enterprise that promotes, coordinates and improves transportation logistics in St. Louis and seven adjacent counties in Missouri and Illinois. It has initiated several infrastructure projects on both sides of the Mississippi river including the Merchants Bridge replacement over the Mississippi River and improvements on I-270 from I-70 (MO) to Illinois Route 111 (MO-IL).
Bi-State also has signed two agreements with the ports of Plaquemines and New Orleans to improve cargo volume on the Mississippi River.
Nations says the Freightway is a good example of how neighboring cities, states and companies can cooperate for the benefit of the entire region.
See all Freightway projects under construction and in the funding and planning stages here.
Despite his enthusiasm for the collaboration evidenced in the Freightway, the former Chesterfield mayor wasn't eager to say whether a St. Louis city-county merger would be good for regional economic development.
“To me, it's not just a matter of St. Louis city and St. Louis County,” Nations said.
“The thing we need to recognize is that the competition that we're dealing with in St. Louis is not between downtown and Clayton. It is not between downtown and Belleville. It's not between St. Louis County and St. Charles County. Frankly, it's people we can no longer see when we look out the window. It's people in other areas who are developing their metropolitan areas and developing their markets. And we need to realize that. St.Louis' greatest strength is when it comes together, unified to solve a given problem.”
It’s not surprising that Nations believes in the power of public-private partnerships. Nations said some of the best real estate development is happening along Metrolink lines. He said those developments can be tapped to help pay for improvements and expansion of Metro service. He pointed to the opening of the Metrolink station in the Cortex Innovation District in July as an example.
“For the new Cortex station, Bi-State did not put money in it. There was a $10.2 million federal grant. The rest of the money came from the Cortex partners. They're to be commended for that. For the first time, we're getting private dollars invested into the public transit system.”
Private-public partnerships are key for future transit projects according to Nations.
A Metrolink route that would connect the north and south sides of St. Louis would be one of those projects, according to Nations. “I think the only way the region will be able to afford an expansion of Metrolink is if we look at new financing and financial models in order to construct it. And I think that can happen.”
What’s next for Nations?
“I intend to stay in St. Louis,” Nations said. “I was born and raised here. People often ask me, you know, ‘Have you spent your whole life in St. Louis?’ And my normal answer is, ‘Not yet, but I'm working on it.’”
Nations, 55, could return to law practice, but he’s not commiting to that option.
“I've been very fortunate in my life to serve the public in many capacities and to be part of so many successes. My interest in civic affairs and the future of our region will not diminish at all when I leave [Bi-State]. It has always grown, decade after decade. And so, what I'm looking forward to is finding new ways to serve our community in the future.”
Follow Melody on Twitter: @melodybird