MetroLink's Safety Problem Isn't About Infrastructure. It's About Incompetence 

It took outside consultants to tell us some startling truths about our MetroLink system.

PAUL SABLEMAN

It took outside consultants to tell us some startling truths about our MetroLink system.

For as long as I can remember, the ruling class of St. Louis has had a simple default response to problems for which there is no apparent answer:

Study the problem.

We have wasted so much money studying so many topics for so many years that I don't even feel the need to cite any particular examples to document the point. Commissioning studies is what we do. Overpaying for them is what we do. Failing to implement the results or otherwise achieve the desired end is what we do.

Perhaps there are rare exceptions to the last point, but from government structure to transportation to finance to criminal justice to the environment to education to tourism and on and on, we've collected so many studies that we may need to commission a study on whether we should construct a new library to house our studies. And if the answer is yes, we'll need another study on to where to put it.

St. Louis is to studies what Athens is to history. If high-dollar consultants across the U.S. held Academy Awards, we'd be honored for lifetime achievement.

Throw in that these studies often enrich those flickering around local politicians like moths on a light, and it's hard to even consider considering the idea of another study. So, all that said, it pains me to write the following words:

We...uh...we just...uh...we just kind of, sort of got...uh...

Oh, the hell with it:

St. Louis just received a MetroLink security study that actually makes sense. If heeded, it might restore public confidence in a troubled light-rail system. If ignored, that system might continue to derail itself.

The study is the result of nine months of thorough review by outside experts with serious chops — experts insulated from our politics — and it lays out both general and specific recommendations (99 of them) for our 46 miles of light-rail track. The one thing it doesn't do is tell the home folks what they want to hear.

The findings of WSP, a New York-based engineering/consulting firm, basically annihilate MetroLink for its existing approach to security. It concludes that disagreements between its in-house officers and the various police agencies tasked with providing extra coverage have created a dysfunctional system. "[T]he territorial issues," it says, "are overshadowing system security."

The problems begin with those in-house officers. "Metro Public Safety portrays itself in named rank, title, and presentation as law enforcement, though per statute there is no discernible authority to do so," the authors write. They add, "The focus of the department seems to be policing the system, rather than securing the system."

WSP throws shade for "confusion of roles and responsibilities," noting that its observers witnessed "disengaged" MetroLink guards "standing off to the side...on their phone...or seated away from passengers." Comically, were it not so sad, its observers weren't certain if those guards who did seem engaged were talking to "potential passengers or just people or friends just hanging out at the station."

The consultants are highly critical of the "stressed relationships" between MetroLink security and law enforcement officials (and by inference politicians) from the city, county and St. Clair County. For Metro security staff, the report notes, "the relationship with law enforcement is challenging, with issues and conflict around who should fill what role and how to police the system. The conflicts are spilling out into the public realm, which contributes to the perception of a dysfunctional security system."

That dysfunction is not breaking news, but it's significant that dispassionate, outside experts find MetroLink's approach to security such a train wreck.

I spoke with Lurae Stuart, the transit expert who headed the study. She told me she has conducted dozens of these studies from here to Dubai, and after describing herself as "one of the least political people you'll ever meet," dropped this friendly bombshell:

"This was a uniquely challenging environment to the extent that (MetroLink) has become such a political football," Stuart says. "I don't think I've ever seen the politics be quite this pervasive."

Now, there's a distinction.

To soften the blow, she adds, "It also means to me that lots of people are passionate and invested in trying to fix it, and we've seen that play out in the degree to which people have receptive to our recommendations." She notes that St. Clair and St. Louis County police are now supplementing enforcement in the city, where understaffing has been a problem. And there's new management at Metro.

Stuart adds that St. Louis' MetroLink-related level of crime was either average or slightly below for a system its size, an encouraging note that many will find surprising. And the overall number of police officers assigned to MetroLink, she says, is not an issue.

The larger concern, Stuart says, is for there to be a greater security presence on trains and platforms. WSP surveyed more than 1,800 local residents, almost all MetroLink riders, and a stunning 71 percent called out the system on this point.

It is validating to hear that we need more (ticket) validating on MetroLink rather than a massive structural overhaul. Lots of us in St. Louis have wondered whether our open-access system is hopelessly outdated and would need a prohibitively expensive reconstruction with turnstiles.

The study rejects that flatly. That's good news. The experts are telling us our light-rail system can be safe if we just start managing it properly, albeit with changes to station access, lighting, communications systems and the like.

WSP's most entertaining suggestion is that MetroLink security people need to lose their guns and drug-sniffing dogs and concentrate on providing a better presence on the trains, rather than playing policemen. The top priority of MetroLink personnel should be to provide better service and comfort to riders.

Bigger picture, it's good to see a study that focuses strictly on security, and not issues such as expansion of the system. Far too often, local discussion on light rail devolves into bitter rehashing of where MetroLink doesn't go and who it doesn't serve and why and how that came to pass.

I've got strong feelings about all that, too, but with ridership numbers in a free-fall — and anecdotal evidence of crime around the system more in the news all the time — St. Louis needs to keep its eye on one ball: Making MetroLink look and feel and truly be safer than it has been in the past.

The study suggests MetroLink needs to improve its media image, among other things, and admonishes officials to stop bickering so much in public. Selfishly, that's not such a high priority for those of us in the transparency business.

But I do think we have a civic duty to come together behind our light-rail system and to give it a chance to succeed. We could start by making sure they implement the ideas in this study, not just file it away like so many others.

If we can't bring ourselves to take that simple step, I say we explore the reasons why. Maybe even commission a study.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977 and recently made his triumphant return as a columnist after a seventeen-year absence. Contact him at rhartmann@sbcglobal.net or follow him on Twitter at @rayhartmann.

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