Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Could the Future of MetroLink be on Jefferson and on River des Peres?

Could the Future of MetroLink be on Jefferson and on River des Peres?

A couple years back, East-West Gateway finished the Metro South Study, basically the study to lay groundwork for a plan for extending the now-open Cross County line southward into deep South St. Louis County. It came out with several ideas, but no final Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA).

Now, the Northside-Southside Study is underway, to plan for major transit investments in the City of St. Louis, including a possible (mostly) on-street, at-grade crosstown MetroLink route through downtown St. Louis.

While I love the new MetroLink line service to WashU, Clayton, Galleria, Brentwood, Maplewood, and Shrewsbury, I am concerned this places the inner-ring suburbs and the central corridor at a bit of an advantage relative to the traditional residential parts of the City: the northside and the southside.

At the same time, both the proposed BNSF corridor for Metro South and the UP ("Route of the Eagle") corridor for Southside, have a problem: they are both active heavy-rail corridors. As such, both freight carriers would require a minimum distance between their active trackage, and any light-rail trackage. This might require demolition of many houses and businesses.

While a few houses and businesses have been lost to the construction of MetroLink to-date, that's been kept to a minimum by relying mostly on existing, abandoned railroad right-of-way. Even Forest Park Parkway is, itself, built on the former Rock Island r-o-w; but after 60+ years, people forgot about that. So we got this strange, up-and-down route where part of the tracks are in a fenced-off open cut, sometimes only a few feet below grade (i.e., where passing over the River des Peres tunnel under Des Peres Avenue) and the stations (along with the entire segment of track between Big Bend and Forsyth stations) are underground.

That fight was intense and perhaps unnecessary.

I would like to see our next several iterations of MetroLink extension -- whenever that will actually happen -- be a bit less contentious.

Also, I would like to see downtown St. Louis become the focal point of the system.

There are HUGE fiscal and legal obstacles to this.

Here are some ideas:

1) Convince St. Louis County voters to support the Prop. M sales tax they voted down almost 10 years ago. City voters already passed it, but we cannot collect the tax until the County passes it.

2) Get St. Louis County to allocate an additional $10 million per year to Metro from its existing transportation sales tax. This should be do-able, if some planned road and bridge fund projects are either deferred or funded out of county general revenue.

3) Fast-track City Street Department/BPS and MODOT approvals for right-of-way assignment to Metro within city streets and state 'highways' like Natural Bridge.

4) Given the railroads' reservations and their inevitable importance to our regional economy, abandon any thoughts of private right-of-way operation parallel to heavy freight operations. After all, it's not particularly pleasant, clean, or safe down at the Grand station, although I think watching the trains go by is cool.

5) Aggressively seek federal funds.

While these are certainly easier said than done, any one of these would help represent a stronger regional commitment to quality public transit.

As far as routing, this is what I'd love to see happen:

1) By 2012, begin construction on the Northside-Southside on-street line, using the only Northside alternative being seriously considered (I-70@Goodfellow - Goodfellow - Natural Bridge - North Florissant), then the Downtown couplet (along N. 14th - Convention Plaza - 10th (SB) and 9th (NB) - Clark - S. 14th), and finally the Southside alternative via Chouteau - S. Jefferson - S. Broadway.

I would deviate from the proposal to enter I-55 at Gasconade/Piedmont (behind Walgreens), and instead stay on-street within S. Broadway as far south as Bellerive Boulevard, then swing up onto a replacement for the existing Bellerive Boulevard structure over S. Broadway (taking a chunk of the hillside in Bellerive Park), and use the overly-wide Bellerive to enter the I-55 berm.

This may or may not be a cheaper alternative, but would maximize the use of on-street in the city rather than Interstate highway r-o-w. From there, it would run alongside I-55, probably on the eastern side, to a temporary terminus around the Loughborough Avenue exit.

I think it's important the Northside-Southside line be constructed as a single unit, a crosstown operation. And except for a few miles alongside I-55 on the south end, it would be an on-street operation. You couldn't go further south than Bellerive on S. Broadway, because you enter the 500-year flood plain. It would have to be on structure south of there. Similarly, south of Loughborough along I-55, it would have to be on structure, so I think that's a sensible interim terminus for the 'on-street' operations component. This is particularly a concern since those would need to be low-floor vehicles more like those used in Portland, OR and very different from the current MetroLink LRVs.

2) Around 2015, begin construction on the Metro South extension, which would operate along the River des Peres corridor south from the Shrewsbury-Lansdowne I-44 station. Yeah, probably a few houses would be lost on this corridor, as well as the Steak N Shake on Gravois and Germania; but most of the corridor would be in city parkland. Alternatively, perhaps the transit center could be relocated to the corner of Gravois and River des Peres. This would probably be on a dedicated right-of-way, possibly elevated due to flooding concerns, and using the same LRVs as the current Cross County line.

Once construction commenced on this line, making the connection to the Southside line would be critical and challenging. It would happen somewhere around the I-55 exits at Germania / Carondelet Blvd. Also by this time, Carondelet Blvd. may be carrying much more traffic, because it will be extended into a new road serving the new casino complex in Lemay. There may even be outer roads crossing River des Peres connecting Carondelet and Germania on- and off-ramps adjacent to I-55: something that should have been included in the original construction of the interstate anyway.

2a) The segment of the Metro South line south of the City limits is still very much up in the air to my way of thinking. It would be great, but probably unrealistic, for it to serve the new Lemay casino. More likely, it will operate using the same LRVs as the now-existing system, along I-55 r-o-w south from Weber Road exit to Butler Hill Road exit, maybe with a slight deviation for the South County Mall area.

But here's another option: instead of continuing the Cross County route south, requiring city patrons to transfer at (say), Germania Station, you could extend the Southside line southward on-street deep into South County. My thought is that you'd terminate the Metro South traditional LRV elevated line at Morganford Road instead of at I-55. That would save some money.

Further savings could be realized by, instead of running Southside alongside I-55, continuing it on-street west along Bellerive Blvd. It would tunnel under the I-55 berm, continue west in the super-wide Bellerive Blvd. median (yeah, this might be a really unpopular idea, but no houses would be taken!), all the way to Grand. West of Grand, Bellerive is much narrower, so the line would turn south onto S. Grand Blvd. OK, that turn might cost a few houses.

S. Grand is a bit narrower here, but the traffic is also much less than segments further north. At Carondelet Park, the route would either 1) go west on Holly Hills, or 2) south through the park then west on Loughborough. I think there's enough room for either option.

Then, you'd enter the really wide Morganford Road. Is there really enough traffic here to justify its width? The beauty of Morganford is it's a wide street, surrounded by residences, all the way south until it turns into Union Road in South County. And Union Road continues south as a really (unnecessarily) wide road, roughly parallel to I-55, as far as S. Lindbergh Blvd. and South County Mall. If ever there was a suburban candidate for on-street operation, this is one.

It's a county arterial road, not a state highway, so getting the County approval would be essential (and maybe difficult). Also, I think the segment of Union near Grant's Trail is in the Gravois Creek floodway, so an elevated structure would be necessary, maybe just adjacent to I-55, from (south of) Reavis Barracks to (about) Will Avenue. Then maybe the on-street would not work. And obviously you couldn't have on-street operation on Lindbergh, so there would need to be dedicated right-of-way somewhere around South County Mall.

I'm a bit skeptical of the value of the leg to Butler Hill Road. I would just terminate the route at South County Mall, but I guess the idea is to build a big park-ride lot to attract Jefferson County riders. But I figure if they're willing to drive across the Meramec, they'll come up as far as I-270. Building out those extra few miles would be costly, and only necessary if a future line to Jeffco is part of the motivation.

3) The so-called Daniel Boone corridor would be great to have in place, as it would provide a direct link from transit-dependent North City to tons of jobs in far West County. But, here again the proposal calls for using part of an (active?) heavy rail corridor. If it turns out this rail corridor (the old Rock Island line roughly parallel to Page Avenue) is out-of-service, it would be ideal. Otherwise, perhaps this is another candidate for partial on-street operation.

3a) I'm less clear on the specifics, but I recall some thought of a link-up via the Terminal Railroad tracks between the Northside line and the existing Airport line. That link would only be a few miles long, from about 5600 Natural Bridge through Hillsdale and Wellston, to a very isolated transfer point behind Bethany Cemetery. Or, via an existing connector r-o-w, you could integrate the two lines, having some trains depart Wellston station and end up at Goodfellow and I-70. Maybe that would work. I guess a station at Kienlen and St. Louis Avenue would be possible on this connector.

A much-longer on-street alternative would be via Goodfellow and MLK Drive, ending at Rock Road station. That would reconnect the Wellston Loop to transit, which could help development in that area.


Anonymous said...

I agree that we should generally avoid active freight railroad corridors for future MetroLink expansion. Madison County does have abandonned railroads landbanked as trails by MCT, and West County has the Daniel Boone line following an inactive railroad (though still owned by Union Pacific, a likely hurdle). But to make downtown the transit hub and/or add a north-south line, it's clear lines running on our City's many wide streets is a better solution than negotiating with major railroad corporations. As you suggest, a north-south line from Goodfellow to Bayless via Natural Bridge to Jefferson and I-55 would completely avoid negotiating with freight railroads.

But I have to disagree on your Broadway to Bellerive suggestion. While staying on Broadway at Gasconade may be cheaper, you can't make it too slow of a ride to South County. Besides, even in terms of City benefits, a station near the commercial node of Bates and Virginia (along I-55) would likely serve the greater Carondelet area better than a station down by Bellerive Park.

Doug Duckworth said...

A strong couple of US Senators with their priorities focused we could get federal dollars through earmarking.

If Senator Byrd can get the US Coast Guard HQ in a landlocked state, then we could get money for mass transit.

For actual annual funds as opposed to grants we will need a rethinking of the current 'fend for yourself' federalism. Yet while the "War on Terror" continues, and if gas prices stay low, this probably will not happen.

At the minimum, wealthy St. Louis County can step up on a sales tax which would harm few in the affluent areas. Although the sales tax is regressive, in this instance it does go to benefit the poor as well as the entire region.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, I can't image the current Forest Park expressway Metrolink infrastructure on actual city streets that people want to cross. Maybe advocates of street cars were right in that their pace is ultimately more compatible with urban streets. However, with Metrolink, the fight in the North South link will be to push in underground and Metro will have to decide given the precedent of the new route how it will put together extra funding for the crazy quilt pattern of above ground and below ground.

Gina said...

We either need a metrolink stop closer to us or a commuter lot at the Grand stop. I do not find the bus to be terribly reliable and so will only use public transport regularly if it is by train and train alone.