Twenty years ago today, the first trains left the platform at Union Station as MetroLink began its inaugural ride in St. Louis. Since then, MetroLink has made its mark on our region and earned a reputation for doing so much more than just connecting riders to their destinations. MetroLink is also celebrated for its key role in establishing healthier communities, stimulating economic development, increasing ridership access and helping to build sustainable communities on both sides of the river.
MetroLink became a reality in our community with the help of a small group of business people, elected officials and interested citizens, who collectively understood the positive impact transit could have on our region. Together, they formed the local transit advocacy organization in 1985 known as Citizens for Modern Transit. The group had a simple mission – to help bring light rail to St. Louis. The organization’s hard work, coupled with the ability to creatively secure local matches for federal funding, aided in the opening of the MetroLink line in 1993 to record ridership.
Since that time, Metro, the operator of the system, has taken it to new levels of success, including two additional expansions to Illinois and the Cross County alignment, and an internationally recognized maintenance program. From the moment MetroLink hit the rails, Metro’s leadership and employees have done an outstanding job delivering world class service, and ridership has continued to far exceed forecasted expectations. And, that momentum shows no sign of slowing. Just last year, MetroLink’s ridership increases landed the system among the Top 10 light rail systems across the country. Voters have also done their part. Those living in St. Louis City rallied behind transit in 1997, as did those in St. Louis County in 2010, making national headlines for passing a sales tax by 63 percent to fund transit, despite a bleak economy. With such support, the original system continued to expand, and today, consists of 37 MetroLink stations along 46 miles of light rail in Missouri and Illinois that connect with MetroBus for an integrated system that drives regional economic development.
So what’s next? We know that the effects of light rail investment extend beyond being just another mode of transportation. To further this point, the regional planning organization, East-West Gateway Council of Governments, will be completing work on the fourth largest HUD grant in the country to study regional development and create a framework for sustainable communities, including a toolbox of strategies to build around transit. But, the question remains – Is St. Louis ready to take the system to the next level and embrace the expansion of MetroLink, even if not all St. Louisans utilize it?
The greatest opportunity to be leveraged as a region is through the build-out of more livable, walkable communities around our system. There is significant room for growth along the existing alignment from this perspective. This type of growth would help St. Louis attract and retain Millennials, immigrants and others who are more likely to choose transit and other alternative modes over buying cars and driving solo. It also serves as a means for older adults who no longer drive to maintain their independence, promotes a cost-effective transportation option for low-income households, and makes our region a more competitive consideration for attracting and retaining businesses, as well as individuals and families.
In short, the success of MetroLink is about so much more than just the ride that takes users from Point A to Point B; it is also about what is happening on the land seen from the windows of the train as it is heading along the tracks. As we celebrate MetroLink’s 20th Anniversary, today is a great day to decide how St. Louis wants to proceed with transit over the next 20 years, because even though some of us ride it, all of us need it.
Happy 20th Anniversary, MetroLink!
Executive Director, Citizens for Modern Transit
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