City vs. County: The Fight Over St. Louis Transit Direction Begins Anew

County Executive Charlie Dooley voiced strong concerns about a plan to build a $270 million light rail trolley downtown, warning it might conflict with his dream of expanding Metrolink to Westport or North Park.

The border between the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County is rearing its ugly head, yet again, in the fight over the region’s rail-based transit future. Meanwhile, Metro is getting ready to host a series of public meetings to figure out which corridors—almost all highway corridors—should next be studied in detail. The most likely result of these corridor studies: BRT.

Rendering of St. Louis Streetcar downtown on Chestnut

The St. Louis Streetcar and MetroLink: Compatibility Issues to Address Before Expansion

Streetcars are on the minds of many in St. Louis. The Loop Trolley finally got through the University City city council and will soon begin construction. Meanwhile, the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis unveiled their own streetcar proposal. Matt Fernandez already wrote a nice article on NextSTL, so I won’t repeat what he’s already said. In summary, the Partnership has proposed a system composed of 2 lines spanning 7 miles: one going from the Gateway Mall at 7th St to the Central West End via Olive, Lindell, and Taylor and a second line going from Civic Center to Old North St. Louis via 14th St and North Florissant.

The proposed north-south streetcar line would duplicate portions of the Northside MetroLink line that was studied back in 2008. Given the general shorter range of streetcars, there has been some concern that the route duplication could impede the future expansion of MetroLink into north city and beyond. These concerns are not unfounded.

Back in 2001, Portland opened one of the first modern streetcar lines in the US to rave reviews. However, the streetcar line Portland built is largely incompatible with its larger MAX light-rail system as the following sentence from Wikipedia explains.

While streetcars can operate on the MAX light-rail tracks, a MAX car would be too heavy to operate on the streetcar’s tracks, too wide for portions of its right-of-way, and unable to pass through the tighter curves on the Portland Streetcar system.
Northside-Southside MetroLink at St. Louis Ave
Northside-Southside MetroLink at St. Louis Ave

Before outlining the issues at hand, let me first say that references to MetroLink below will usually refer to the low-floor streetcar-like version proposed in the Northside-Southside MetroLink study. The existing MetroLink lines are not compatible with streetcars in any way, shape, or form save for a quick trip to the Ewing train yard.

So without further ado, below is a list of elements that could potentially differentiate streetcars from MetroLink along with how severely each issue may affect compatibility between the two systems.

Track gauge – Non-issue
With the exceptions of New Orleans, Pennsylvania, or San Francisco public transit, 1435 mm is the near universal track gauge for all freight and passenger rail.
Power – Minor issue
MetroLink currently operates under 750-volt DC power, a fairly common standard amongst rail transit systems in the US. The only likely difference between MetroLink and the proposed streetcar is the type of overhead wire: tensioned catenary for MetroLink, trolley wire for the streetcar. MetroLink should be capable of running under trolley wire as long as it doesn’t speed too fast.
Vehicle length – Minor issue
MetroLink 2-car trains are approximately 180ft long. Streetcars in the US are typically 60 to 66ft in length, though some cities in Europe have streetcars as long as 175ft. A St. Louis streetcar is unlikely to be any longer than 90ft. A MetroLink train operating on streetcar tracks would be limited to a single car length barring significant platform expansion.
Track alignment – Moderate issue
MetroLink trains are capable of turning on curvatures with radii as small as 25 meters. However, thanks to their smaller profiles, many standard streetcar designs are capable of handling curves with radii of only 18 meters which allows them to fit into tighter, more crowded environments than typically allowed by light-rail vehicles.
Platform height – Moderate issue

Both MetroLink and streetcars would utilize the same 14in platform height. In the US, streetcars stations have also been built with 10in platforms. The lower platform allows buses to interface with the stations, as well, since 14in platforms are a hair too high and block the doors on buses.

Another consideration is that the higher 14-inch platform allows for fully level MetroLink-like boarding while 10-inch platforms require the use of a bridgeplate for ADA purposes. Use of a bridgeplate, naturally, slightly slows down the boarding process at each station it is used.

For obvious reasons, streetcars won’t be able to use existing MetroLink platforms and the existing MetroLink won’t be able to use streetcar platforms. Theoretically, both streetcars and MetroLink would be able to use the same tracks, although in MetroLink’s case, there would be some awkwardness in South County where high and low platforms would be required at each station to accommodate high and low floor MetroLink vehicles should both a Southside and MetroSouth expansion occur.

Vehicle width – Major issue

Streetcars in Europe generally come in 3 different widths: 2.3m, 2.4m, and 2.65m with some 2.46m systems scattered about. In the US, the general standard for light-rail vehicles such as MetroLink is 2.65m (8ft 8.5in). Thanks to Portland, the emerging US streetcar standard is 2.46m (8ft 1in) with some cities opting for the wider light-rail standard.

Northbound Streetcar at Jamison Square
Portland Streetcar // SFCityscape

Vehicle width will have the effect of “locking in” platform distances from the tracks. Platforms designed for narrower streetcar vehicles will impede wider light-rail trains, platforms designed for wider light-rail trains will prevent use of narrow streetcars. Also, wider vehicles will require a wider right-of-way or lane to comfortably mix with traffic.

Trackbed strength – Major issue
Streetcars have become popular in cities for one major reason: cost. Whereas new light-rail alignments often cost $50 million per mile at a minimum, streetcars can be built for less than $40 million per mile. Aside from doing away with many of the amenities offered on light-rail systems, streetcar vehicles are smaller and significantly lighter than their light-rail cousins allowing for cheaper, shallower trackbed construction. A major side effect of this cheaper construction, however, is that the trackbed can’t support the weight of heavier light-rail vehicles such as MetroLink. Compatibility with MetroLink would require stronger, deeper trackbeds which would potentially wipe out much of the cost savings of streetcars versus light-rail.

There are many different elements that could differentiate streetcars from MetroLink and make them incompatible with each other, but that hasn’t stopped cities across the country from jumping on the streetcar bandwagon. All things considered, I support using a model similar to Portland for the reintroduction of streetcars to St. Louis.

Cross-posted at nextSTL.

Developers Continue to Plague Downtown With Unneeded Parking

Michael Allen has an overview of the latest “developments” concerning the building at 1105-9 Olive Street which the owner wants to tear down for a parking lot despite the fact that the area is already surrounded with abundant parking. Also, he would like to see action taken to deter downtown developers from plaguing downtown with additional parking.

The Board of Aldermen should consider passing a formal parking lot moratorium for downtown east of Tucker Boulevard, to ensure that the city’s heart is a place where real estate grows in value and grows in potential for use and benefit.

ULI Presents Bold Ideas for Area Around Grand Station

Chouteau’s Greenway, a high speed rail hub at the Grand MetroLink Station and/or a platform development were all bold ideas presented by the local Urban Land Institute (ULI) Panel of experts as transformative measures for the area around the Grand MetroLink Station as a part of a study commissioned by CMT.

Couldn’t make it to the meeting? Citizens for Modern Transit has a summary of the event and a link to the presentation.

Developing The North Hanley MetroLink Station

Steve Patterson of Urban Review STL gives his thoughts on the North Hanley MetroLink station, surroundings, and development potential after attending Citizens for Modern Transit’s walkabout tour of the station. Unfortunately, it seems that the tour did not make it to Hanley Rd side of the station where the pedestrian accommodations are less than ideal even after recent improvements. More on that later.

Boulevard This!

Ferry Building, The Embarcadero, San Francisco
The Embarcadero passes the Ferry Building in San Francisco. // CTG/SF.
Naito Parkway
Naito Pkwy borders Waterfront Park in Portland OR. // freddy.
Constitution Ave Washington DC
Constitution Ave borders the National Mall in Washington DC. // mbell1975.
Pratt Street in Baltimore in spring
Pratt Street near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. // dionhinchcliffe.
Interstate 70 separates St. Louis from the Arch and it’s riverfront. // Vanishing STL.

MoDOT recently released the draft environmental assessment report for the Park over the Highway project, one of the major elements of the Arch grounds renovation project led by CityArchRiver 2015, and is now soliciting public comments on the document. As proposed, the PotH project will build a one-block “lid” over the depressed lanes of I-70, close at least one block of Memorial Dr, remove the Pine St bridge over the highway, and make many other changes to highway infrastructure.

A public hearing will be held on August 29, 4-7 p.m. at 1520 Market Street. Comments may be submitted at the public hearing, mailed to MoDOT/CR, or submitted on-line by using this form.

MoDOT will provide a virtual public hearing website to display the information shared at the public hearing. That website will be launched on August 29.

River City Casino as seen from the Mississippi River Greenway

River City Casino Not Connected to Nearby Trail

Much like many sidewalks in the region, what is the purpose of trails if they don’t provide connections to nearby destinations?

The Mississippi River Greenway passes and parallels within 16ft of the roads surrounding River City Casino. Yet, despite getting so close, not a single connection exists between the casino roads and the “adjacent” trail much less the casino itself. A hike through the grass is required to reach the trail.

For a while, this 1/2 mile section of trail was an isolated segment that did not connect anywhere to anywhere. Recently, a one mile extension of the trail was built that connected the River City Casino segment to the Jefferson Barracks system of trails (this new segment, by the way, is one of the most breathtaking and beautiful trails of anywhere in the St. Louis region). Great Rivers Greenway is, also, actively planning a much larger extension to the north to complete the Mississippi River Greenway all the way to the Gateway Arch.

But there are still no plans to provide a connection from River City Casino to the nearby trail.