Golden Rails

Sure, MetroLink's expensive -- so's your Lincoln Navigator

Apr 17, 2002 at 4:00 am
Enough already with the whining about MetroLink. It's here, it's getting bigger and it'll cost more than expected. A lot more.

Sometime before most of us die -- say, in five years or so -- new trains will be connecting downtown with Clayton and the Galleria before heading south to Shrewsbury.

In the short term, light-rail systems such as MetroLink are the public-transit equivalent of a SUV -- a status symbol on wheels, an inefficient use of resources but, boy, do they look spiffy.

Every city wants one.

In the long term, MetroLink is like the mythic promise of the electric car -- what a wonderful world it would be if everyone used it, all the time. But of course they can't, because its sparse 34.4 miles of track only makes it feasible for folks going to the airport, or Busch Stadium, or a Blues game, or Fair St. Louis. In this River City, most people ride public transit both to and as a special event.

The travail of light rail is that for most taxpayers, who live in the short term, it looks like a civic extravagance. Yet for planners and politicians, who at least have to pretend to care about the long term, it's needed for the future.

Work is expected to begin this year on Bi-State's cross-county extension of MetroLink, and the weeping and gnashing of teeth has begun. Back in '99, the crystal-ball-gazers over at the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council said the new spur would cost $404 million. Then the engineers at Bi-State took over, and, wouldn't you know, the price tag shot up to $550 million. That's where it is, for now, before any new rail has been set in place.

The culprits behind the jump in cost litter the landscape. Whom you blame depends on what agenda you want to push. People and planners in the process all seem to have axes to grind -- and several to throw, too.

Defenders of the current plan say the East-West Gateway projection was dated, left out necessary elements (ticket-vending machines, for one) and didn't include enough money for street reconstruction. Some MetroLink backers blame the extra expense on the cabal of neighborhood groups who wanted the route to zig this way and that so trains wouldn't run too close to their back doors. Those same nagging neighbors didn't want their tranquility disrupted by the bells and whistles triggered by crossing gates, so at Skinker, Big Bend and Forsyth, the trains go under the street.

Many neighborhood groups along the new route wanted MetroLink underground, and many wanted Bi-State to bury the idea of the extension altogether.

They still do.

Their latest tactic is to attack the finances. The original East-West Gateway projection provided a budget to build the extension, with enough money left over to run MetroLink for six years. With the increased costs added by Bi-State's design, that cushion is gone.

But don't be fooled by these folks. The opponents who now complain about the finances are many of the same people who drove up the price of the project by demanding below-grade crossings, overpasses and rails laid on the side of Forest Park Parkway instead of down the median.

At the same time Bi-State is expanding rail service, it is eliminating and shrinking its bus routes. Buses are klutzy and belch smoke. They're full of poor people who don't regard mass transit as a special event and can't hire lobbyists.

A prime suspect for the Bi-State blamers is Gregg Northcutt, an engineer with the Midas touch who worked on MetroLink for Bi-State. He left last year under several clouds to take over engineering work on Spokane's proposed light-rail line. Recent reports from the frontier show the cost of that town's rail project spiking to $540 million from an original estimate of $300 million.

One of the alterations to MetroLink's cross-county extension, done on Northcutt's watch, was to change the grade at which trains descend to go under a street and then rise again to return to street level. Under the East-West Gateway plan, the grade was close to 6 percent, meaning the tracks would rise 6 feet for every 100 feet covered.

With the revised Bi-State plan, those grades dropped to 3 percent. The trains are designed to handle grades of as much as 9 percent, but concerns over icing led Bi-State to cut it back. When the distance it takes for a train to complete a below-grade crossing is stretched, more underground utility and sewer lines must be moved, thereby increasing the cost.

The Bi-State design allots $37 million to move utilities, more than $31 million over what was budgeted in the East-West Gateway plan. That's just one example of a discrepancy in the plans.

Sure, East-West Gateway underestimated some of the costs, and there's inflation to consider, but no one can explain away a $146 million jump. Bi-State overengineered the extension, assuming that if the system runs out of money, local taxpayers or the federales will bail it out. As for those anti-rail philistines along the route, the only way this train will be stopped is if you tie someone to the tracks. But don't expect any Dudley Do-Right to save that damsel in distress in the nick of time.

Once construction is done and the trains roll, money will be an issue.

"They're going to be bankrupt the day they open," says one insider. "They'll have to figure out something. They'll either cut back the bus system or by that time there'll be a tax increase that gets passed."

Short Cuts predicts bus cutbacks, a tax increase and a slightly more fuel-efficient SUV.