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Here’s a Money-Saving Idea for St. Louis

Francis Slay, the mayor of St. Louis, wants to spend more money (another $2.2 billion) on a very expensive toy — adding 17 miles of track at taxpayer expense to the 46 already assembled in the MetroLink light-rail system. He calls it “a moral and economic imperative” for our city and region.

That’s crazy talk.

Since the 1990s, the St. Louis MetroLink system has soaked up $3 billion from the public purse through capital outlays and operating subsidies. What do we have to show for it?

Not much. MetroLink carries less than one-half of one percent of metro area commuters. Total bus and rail ridership in the St. Louis area is lower today than bus ridership alone was in 1991, three years before the MetroLink opened.

MetroLink’s past gives us little reason to think it can restore declining commercial projects to good health. It didn’t save St. Louis Center or even prevent decline at Union Station or Laclede’s Landing. Nor did it bring about a golf course in East St. Louis.

To find the real success stories in urban renewal over the past two decades, we would instead have to look at places like Soulard, South Grand, the Grove, and now Cherokee Street, all located far from any MetroLink station.

“When you make a light rail line, it’s permanent,” says the mayor. But that permanence is in fact one of the problems with urban light rail – the presumption that elected officials and city planners have the knowledge and the foresight to make the right calls in deciding where future growth can and should occur, or that they should substitute their judgment for the free play of the marketplace in picking the best spots for investment.

Make no mistake: The proposed 17-mile north-south extension of MetroLink would be a stupendously expensive project — even if you treat the assumed matching federal dollars as “free money.” At $1.1 billion, the local/regional share still comes to more $50 million per mile, or $1,000 per foot of track.

What else could the St. Louis region do with $1.1 billion? It could:

  • Triple Bi-State Transit’s fleet of buses and make other major improvements
  • Give four-year scholarships for 27,000 students at the University of Missouri at Saint Louis
  • Send out $500 checks to every man, woman and child in the metropolitan area.

In fact, with $1.1 billion in freely available money, it would be possible to do something that the people who actually ride on MetroLink — as opposed to the downtown political class — would surely applaud.

At an estimated cost of about $19,000 per vehicle, it would possible to give new compact cars to all MetroLink riders — to include today’s 44,000 daily riders, plus the estimated 15,000 future riders from the planned expansion.

That is not to say that we should do any of those things; it is just to put the magnitude of the proposed expansion into a broader perspective.

Proponents of light rail like to pretend that it will help to solve a multitude of urban problems — everything from inner city decay and high unemployment to traffic congestion and air pollution. In fact, in a sprawling metropolis like St. Louis, there is little light rail can do to ease, let alone solve, any of those problems.

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