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Los Angeles record-company flack Erin Lazarus was coming off a robust New Year's Eve bender with the Flaming Lips in Chicago when she was met with the news that the buddy pass she'd arranged for her friend wouldn't fly him out of any port other than Memphis. Guilt-ridden, Lazarus quickly secured seats for her and her chum on the Texas Eagle Amtrak train bound for St. Louis, where the pair had arranged to rent a car for the southbound drive down I-55.
A well-to-do twentysomething with roots in Florida, Lazarus was excited at the prospect of her maiden voyage on Amtrak, even though it would have been a far swifter schlepp on a jet. Expecting something akin to the wood panels and red-velvet décor depicted on Hollywood celluloid, Lazarus was let down by the Eagle's comparatively bland design scheme -- a somber mood that, coupled with a vicious hangover, caused Lazarus to drown her sorrows in cheap red wine in the bar car for the entire six-hour trip to St. Louis.
But it wasn't until Lazarus took a gander at St. Louis' sorry excuse for an Amtrak station that the tears started flowing. The landlocked heartland can be depressing enough for a child of the coast, but when said Amtrak station is a stapled-together double-wide trailer in a dingy, muddy section of America's most dangerous city, the emotions can descend to near-clinical depths.
As evidenced by a chorus of "Are you kidding?" utterances from her fellow passengers, Lazarus wasn't the only one taken aback by the city's infamous "Amshack," a temporary facility with an intended shelf life of three years, erected when Amtrak pulled out of Union Station in 1978. It is, according to rail-association members and local officials, easily the most embarrassingly pathetic big-city railroad station in the country, something that could not have made the most positive impression on the 130,610 passengers who passed through its narrow glass doors from October 1, 2001, to September 30, 2002.
"It's a piece of crap," says Tom Shrout, a Central West End resident and MetroLink user who leads the St. Louis-based Citizens for Modern Transit. "You don't even have to compare it with big cities'. Kirkwood's got a better station; Washington (Missouri) has a better station; Irvine, California, has a better station."
"When I have friends who come to visit by train, I have to apologize in advance," says local radio personality Bob Hamilton, who lives in the city's picturesque Lafayette Square neighborhood.
For almost a quarter-century, replacing the Amshack has been St. Louis' lowest-prioritized political hot potato, treated like the teenage foster child everyone is nice to but no one wants to care for long-term. First conceptualized as a $45 million "multimodal" transportation center at the corner of Jefferson and Scott avenues that would house buses, trains and a heliport, an Amshack replacement has been on the books for four administrations, from Vince Schoemehl to Francis Slay.
"There's been a less-than-genuine commitment on the part of previous administrations," says East-West Gateway Coordinating Council executive director Les Sterman. "It's sort of a testimony to the bureaucracy of the city and its ability to manage a complex project."
Or the lack thereof. But although Sterman and CMT's Shrout maintain an "I'll believe it when I see it" posture, even the city's most ardent critics see cause for optimism -- embodied by proven civic achiever John Roach, Slay's designated Amshack-replacement point man.
To support their enthusiasm, Sterman and Shrout note Roach's leadership in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood revitalization project and the MetroLink extension into St. Clair County, Illinois.
"Roach has a track record," says Shrout. "When they turned this project over to him, I was delighted."
Amshack's primary problems have centered on money and priorities. To address the former, Roach and Barb Geisman, Slay's deputy mayor for development, have whittled the project's budget down to a more realistic $25 million and hope to break ground this spring. Their goal: to complete a multiuse station -- dubbed the Intermodal Transportation Center -- right next to the Savvis Center MetroLink stop by the end of 2004.
"The problem was, the prior administration had lofty visions for what they wanted," says Downtown Now! Executive Director Tom Reeves of the early proposals. "They were looking at a $45 million project -- and they had half that. John and Barb said, 'We don't need a heliport and all this crap.' They sat down and trimmed it down, and they're moving ahead with it."
And not a moment too soon; the Chicago-St. Louis run is the pilot corridor for Amtrak's Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, which will feature high-speed trains that could double the number of trips between the two cities and reduce travel time by nearly two hours before the end of next year. Should Slay, Roach and the Amshack's other stakeholders fail to meet their latest construction deadline, St. Louis' dirty little double-wide secret could mushroom into a very public reminder to visitors -- most notably, Chicagoans -- that St. Louis' urban core, in its current form, is positively bush-league.
In fairness, as Roach notes, funding Amshack's replacement isn't the sole responsibility of the city.
"It's like stone soup," says Roach. "There's a federal appropriation, FTA [Federal Transit Administration] bus money, a planning grant from East-West Gateway and federal highway money from MoDOT [Missouri Department of Transportation], and then there's a city match for the federal appropriation."
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