Terminal Lethargy

Is UM-St. Louis to blame for Bi-State's failure to build a much-needed garage?

Sep 5, 2001 at 4:00 am
Bi-State's always whining about not having enough money to do what needs to be done. It's a decent defense when talking about the provincial warlords in Jeff City who don't funnel enough funds to urban mass transit -- just $3.9 million last fiscal year out of a $145 million Bi-State budget.

More money could mean more runs on busy routes, improved signage at bus stops, better-maintained equipment and new transfer centers to simplify life for passengers. But it's clear that Bi-State's problem is not as simple as a lack of cash; it also has a terminal lack of urgency. One prime example is that for six years Bi-State has had access to $5.9 million in federal funds to build a much-needed garage at the North Hanley MetroLink park-and-ride lot, yet next to nothing has been done to start pouring concrete.

Federal funding was approved for the 2,200-car garage in 1995, and the project was expected to be completed by 1998. Local sales-tax revenue was going to be tapped for 20 percent of the cost, and the company operating the garage was going to finance 30 percent of the total $11.2 million price tag. The proposed garage, at 4401 N. Hanley Rd. at Interstate 70, was also meant for travelers who could park there and take MetroLink to the airport. The surface parking lot at the North Hanley station is packed every weekday -- and some nights and weekends, too, for Cardinals, Blues and Rams games. A garage seemed like a good idea then, and it seems like a good idea now.

Les Sterman, executive director of the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, is less than pleased with Bi-State's glacial pace. "It shouldn't take six years to build a garage," Sterman says. "Obviously it will take more than six years, because it's not clear the garage is anywhere close to being built."

A Sept. 14 deadline for proposals for the site has been set. The University of Missouri-St. Louis and an affiliate of Marriott Hotel Corp. together are proposing to construct a hotel and conference center, along with a garage that would also be used for MetroLink riders. That plan, which would likely delay the much-needed North Hanley garage again, has some wondering about the role of Betty Van Uum, a member of the Bi-State Board of Commissioners since 1994 and special assistant to UM-St. Louis Chancellor Blanche Touhill.

Van Uum says she hasn't tried to delay construction of the North Hanley garage or pushed the UM-St. Louis option. "Oh, I don't think so. I've been an enthusiast for it since I heard it was coming," she says of the North Hanley garage. "When it became clear that UMSL was going to be involved in it, I stopped taking part in any of the Bi-State conversations about it because I knew I would be working on the UMSL part of it. I had no part in the Bi-State decisions."

Tina Votaw, division director for real estate and development at Bi-State, says the agency is looking for a "broader vision" than just a garage: "Those folks who do development every day do possess that broader vision and do have the resources to deliver. That's not something that we have historically been able to do."

Van Uum tap-dances around criticizing Bi-State. "These multijurisdictional kind of projects take a really long time to get done," she says. "The vision was a very ambitious vision for the agency, which has had relatively little development experience, although it has a 50-year charter of suggesting it should be doing exactly this."

Part of what miffed Sterman, whose agency is the spigot through which federal dollars flow to tranist-related projects, is an Aug. 10 St. Louis Business Journal article that suggested the development proposal was being floated because federal dollars had recently become available. "I was shocked by the statement because it was clearly not true," Sterman says. "If in fact the issue is trying to develop a suitable plan to be consistent with what UMSL is doing and it's taken six years to do that, then that's what they ought to be saying, not that federal money wasn't available."

Nothing much has changed in the last six years other than that the park-and-ride lot is full more often and Bi-State's ridership overall is down more than a million riders. The agency's current $7 million shortfall has led to service cuts.

"We tried to be responsive in '95. There was a clear need. The ridership was there. We've had so many people turned away from that parking lot," Sterman says. "It's disappointing that Bi-State couldn't meet its commitment to open the garage by '98."

While the developers -- and UM-St. Louis -- fiddles, Rome burns.

An April 1995 Bi-State estimate stated that the proposed North Hanley garage would lead to a daily net gain of 1,833 MetroLink riders. Doing some fuzzy math with an assumption of $2.50 per rider per round trip, that would mean $895,500 in annual revenues to Bi-State. OK, it's not that simple, but Bi-State's inertia, whether or not it was intentionally inflicted for UM-St. Louis' benefit, cost the mass-transit system big bucks. And the people who wait longer for a bus or breathe more carbon monoxide because of traffic, those are the folks paying the price.

"Bi-State was trying to accommodate development interests, trying to accommodate UMSL, and, unfortunately, didn't accommodate its customers," Sterman says. "Essentially Bi-State is turning people away because of the lack of capacity at that parking lot."