You Can't Take the "Me" Out of Metrolink

Jun 16, 1999 at 4:00 am
It was announced this week that the Metrolink light-rail system is so popular that 35 new cars, each seating 138 passengers, will be added to relieve rush-hour congestion on the trains between Union Station and the suburbs.

Oh, sorry. That would be Los Angeles' Metrolink system, connecting its Union Station to its surrounding suburbs.

Here in St. Louis, our MetroLink system is a different matter. That distant hum you hear in suburbia is no train: It's the drone of anguished citizens whining about the light-rail tracks of their tears.

Welcome to the "Me State," where a proposed $410 million expansion of MetroLink has provoked a firestorm of incoming Scuds heretofore ignited only by a Tony LaRussa call to the bullpen. Every seven seconds a new MetroLink idea is born. Nine out of 10 involve building another tunnel.

On June 30, the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council (Gateway) -- made up of 21 officials in the region -- will vote on how to extend the part-of-a-light-rail-system that amazingly carries about 45,000 daily passengers despite covering just a sliver of the region. If all goes well, a much-improved system will be in place within five or six years.

If all goes like progress in St. Louis usually goes, some bailiff with a starting gun will be yelling, "LAWYERS, ON YOUR MARK!" If you're young, you can hope for meaningful light-rail service for your great-grandchildren.

The hard part -- some say the impossible part -- is connecting the existing MetroLink stop at DeBaliviere to the natural railroad right-of-way just west of the Inner Belt, from where it's relatively smooth sailing to South County. It's only a matter of seven-and-a-half miles, but it's taking more time to construct than the Lewis and Clark Trail.

Blocking this particular crossing is a long-standing tradition in Clayton, University City and parts of the Central West End, dating back to the early 1980s, when opposition to a "Clayton-U. City spur" -- as it was known then -- restricted MetroLink to its present limits.

In 1983, 11 groups of residents united to form Neighborhoods United Against the U. City-Clayton Light Rail Spur Inc. The group's president, Susan M. Sullivan, wrote at the time that "the threat comes from uncaring bureaucrats chasing federal money, for a project which we, as county residents, neither desire, nor believe that anyone will substantially benefit from."

Sixteen years later, the various neighborhood associations seem more focused on their own backyards and more concerned about safety and congestion than keeping the rabble out. A notable exception is erstwhile Elitist of the Year Bill Maritz, who, in his role as part owner of the Ritz-Carlton, waxed eloquent in Saturday's Post-Dispatch about the need to keep MetroLink out of Clayton altogether. (Maritz's self-righteous arguments included the divisive idea, advanced elsewhere by ex-St. Louis Mayor Vince Schoemehl, that MetroLink avoid Clayton as a means of propping up downtown).

But though many of the arguments and players have changed, this much hasn't: It's all about me. It's all about my neighborhood. And the glass always seems half-empty.

We can't seem to take the "me" out of MetroLink.
Up to a point, this is fine. No doubt the activism of neighborhood groups and individual citizens has done much to improve upon Gateway's initial blueprints for the expansion -- which were far from perfect when they were introduced four years ago -- and if St. Louis could wake up on July 1 with an unimpeded plan in motion, "all the kicking and screaming would have served a valid purpose."

That quote comes from a local urban planner who chooses to remain anonymous. Why? The kicking and screaming isn't over.

The main battleground is the central-west corridor, and the main battle is over Gateway's desire to keep MetroLink largely an aboveground, "at grade" system. This isn't the diabolical plot that opponents divine in railing against the rails. Running aboveground is what light rail is all about.

All together now: This isn't a subway system.
"There isn't a light-rail system in the country that's underground," Les Sterman, Gateway executive director, says. "Look at the successful systems around the country -- Denver, Dallas, Sacramento, San Jose, San Francisco -- and you'll see they're all basically at-grade. Light rail is a mode that's supposed to operate on the surface."

Sterman says the demands for tunnels by local governments and/or residents in Clayton, University City and the city seem to be a uniquely St. Louis thing.

"My colleagues around the country are sort of amazed that this has surfaced," Sterman says. "Normally the opposition is about crime and race and the 'wrong people in my neighborhood.' Here the opponents have raised other issues about safety and congestion that we don't think are justified by the facts."

Still, Gateway planners appear to beleaning to accept residents' demands for underpasses at both the Skinker and Big Bend intersections of the Forest Park Parkway. Sterman told me: "We're strongly considering going under Skinker and Big Bend. We don't think it's necessary, but obviously it's a community concern, and we're trying to be responsive to the community."

More complicated is the Clayton situation, where the Board of Aldermen wants -- guess what? -- a tunnel. A much better, and far less expensive alternative, would be an at-gradesystem, and the likely best choice is to stay along the Forest Park Parkway, as proposed recently by County Executive Buzz Westfall (again, in response to citizen outrage).

Clayton's aldermen offered, conditionally, to pay part of the cost of their tunnel -- which sounded nice enough, at first blush -- but ultimately a light-rail system belongs aboveground, where riders see out and, yes, residents used to the concrete splendor of their suburban paradises actually grow accustomed to the ghastly sight of light-rail cars.

I realize this might seem an abrogation of citizens' Third Amendment Right to a Tunnel, but light rail is about bringing people to the high points of a metropolitan area, not under them. And it's about doing it in a way that's far cleaner, less expensive, less noisy and more efficient than the automobile.

Light rail is about accessibility -- for tourists and conventioneers, for the disabled, for the poor, for all sorts of people for whom auto transportation isn't a prime option -- and it's both affordable and attractive precisely because it isn't a subway system. It's also, ironically enough, a means of bringing different parts of the community together.

But that can't happen as long as politicians and the angry residents pushing them cling to preserving every inch of pristine highway near their own backyards. At some point in this torturous process -- hopefully real soon -- MetroLink has to stop being all about me.

It's about us.