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MetroLink expansion proposals unveiled

MetroLink expansion proposals unveiled

The recent public unveiling of proposed expansion routes for the MetroLink light-rail system gave definition to the system's expansion agenda.

The January unveiling of the Cross-County Corridor Major Transportation Investment Analysis (MTIA) detailed 10 proposed combinations of MetroLink expansions and highway improvements organized by transportation corridors. Sverdrup Civil Inc., a St. Louis engineering firm, prepared the MTIA for the Missouri Department of Transportation and the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, a regional planning organization.

Hundreds of area residents packed the Clayton Community Center on Jan. 22 to get their first looks at aerial photographs marked with proposed routes to extend Interstate 170 into south county and to extend MetroLink into new parts of St. Louis County.

MetroLink now connects downtown St. Louis with Lambert-St. Louis International Airport to the northwest. Proposed expansions call for the creation of an east-west connector between downtown St. Louis and I-170 and a north-south route along I-170.

Expansion plans are being considered for several reasons, including the overwhelming success of the existing MetroLink line and the area's overly burdened roadways, outdated highway interchanges and pollution-choked air.

Proposition M, approved by voters in 1994, established a quarter-cent sales tax in St. Louis and St. Louis County dedicated to paying for the operation and expansion of MetroLink. The tax was approved by 70 percent of voters in the central townships, which include University City and Clayton.

There are four proposed east-west MetroLink routes, all in the east subcorridor, where Washington University is located. It is likely that one of these four plans will be selected. Three of the four proposed routes call for the line to run along the northern edge of the University's Hilltop Campus.

Of these four routes, the one favored by the University would run west along Forest Park Parkway/Millbrook Boulevard from DeBaliviere Avenue to Clayton's Government Center and Central Business District, where the weekday influx of 30,000 commuters now creates major parking problems.

This route, the "north-of-the-park route," starts at the Forest Park MetroLink station at DeBaliviere. As proposed by Sverdrup, the route would cross under Forest Park Parkway and then travel west on the south side of the parkway below grade along an existing right of way. Where the line crosses Des Peres Avenue, it would have to rise to ground level in order to pass over the River Des Peres storm sewer. At Skinker Boulevard, the route would tunnel beneath the street to avoid disrupting traffic. After passing Skinker, the proposed route would travel along the northern edge of the Hilltop Campus, on the south side of Millbrook Boulevard. The University advocates that the train run along campus in an open cut -- a below-street-level track with an open top. Tracks, wires, poles and trains would not be visible from street level. The route would continue west to Big Bend Boulevard, crossing under Hoyt and Throop drives, then would tunnel under the Millbrook-Big Bend intersection, crossing to the north side of Forest Park Parkway. It would travel on an existing right of way on the parkway below grade until just before Pershing Avenue, where the route would enter a tunnel under Forest Park Parkway. The route would continue into Clayton's Government Center and Central Business District and then connect to a proposed new MetroLink line running north-south along I-170.

Sverdrup has proposed stops along this route at Skinker and at Big Bend. The University will provide right of way on its property for the rail to run along the northern edge of the Hilltop Campus under the following conditions:

A public-opinion survey of residents in University City, Clayton and the Central West End found that 88 percent of respondents favor the "north-of-the-park route." The poll was conducted by Attitude Research Co. (ARC) of St. Louis in late November and early December of 1996 at the request of Neighbors for MetroLink, a group advocating the "north-of-the-park route."

Concern over the proposed expansion has been voiced by some area residents who are worried about property values, construction costs, noise and the loss of private property.

M. Fredric Volkmann, the University's vice chancellor for public affairs, said the University shares its neighbors' interest in protecting the integrity of the area. "Strong and stable neighborhoods are vital to the community and to the University. They must be preserved and supported," Volkmann said. "As go the neighborhoods, so goes the University."

A recent review conducted for Neighbors for MetroLink by ARC of studies of rail expansion in other cities showed that homes located near rail stations increase or remain stable in value.

"The impact on property values is positive," said Donna Day, a spokesperson for the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council. Day said she had discovered no studies that showed a decrease in property values as a result of light-rail expansion.

The Coordinating Council analyzed a 1996 impact study by the National Research Council and found that light-rail transit also increases the value of commercial real estate.

Such findings do not surprise Tom Shrout. "It's because it improves a person's options and access in transit," said Shrout, executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit, a rail advocacy group.

Shrout also is a member of the Cross-County Corridor MTIA Study Management Group, which will make recommendations on expansion proposals to the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council's board. The board, made up of regional city and county elected officials, is expected to decide on MetroLink expansion this spring.

The "north-of-the-park route" is the least expensive and the shortest of the four proposed routes in the east subcorridor. Its estimated cost is between $170 million and $234 million. At its most expensive, this route would cost $100 million less than the lowest estimate for any of the other three proposed alignments serving the same destinations.

As part of the MTIA, engineers at Sverdrup studied the effect MetroLink would have on noise levels. Using a worst-case scenario -- a ground-level train running at peak travel hours with no sound barrier -- the noise level measured in back yards next to the proposed route increased by less than two decibels, said Joe Leindecker, deputy director of the MTIA study. At any distance, it takes an increase of at least three decibels for a person to perceive a change in noise, Leindecker said. For portions of the University-advocated route, the train would travel in an open cut -- a much quieter mode than ground-level travel.

In addition, public officials anticipate that MetroLink expansion would reduce existing traffic noise on congested streets, such as Millbrook Boulevard. The latest traffic count by the St. Louis County Highway Department shows that 26,500 cars travel along Millbrook on an average weekday.

According to Sverdrup's MTIA study, the "north-of-the-park route" would not take any homes. One of the alternate routes -- the route following Highway 40/Interstate 64 west to a point near the Saint Louis Galleria -- would require the destruction of at least 15 homes and businesses.

Along its existing route, MetroLink has been a nationally acclaimed success. Moving into its fourth year of operation, the system already has exceeded ridership expectations with an average daily ridership of more than 40,000. It is a faster mode of rail transit than typical light-rail operations and was described as "the best in the country" by former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena.

-- Martha Everett

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