The Board of Aldermen have finally decided to take actual steps towards the beginning of the North-South MetroLink line. A Board Bill up for vote soon (BB#227) will put the choice to voters: it offers to place on the ballot the option for a one-half-percent sales tax, which would give approximately $20 Million per year to the city. That would be split as so:
|Category||% of Proceeds||Projected 2018 Allocation|
If we are going to make such a significant investment in MetroLink, and do it through the use of a sales tax (a regressive type of tax: one which has been shown to frequently worsen economic inequality), we must make sure that the tax money is spent in ways that will serve the poor, and since economic inequality in St. Louis has a strong basis in racial inequality, the North-South MetroLink should especially focus on serving black communities.
If built, the expansion would affect the city in several important ways, but one measurable way to help us to decide whether the expansion will help low-income communities, is to look at its impact on commute times. Commute time has been suggested as the single strongest factor in escaping poverty , and a 2016 study by Quinn Majeski at the Evans School further specified that effect, to the extent that "a one minute [decrease]* in commute time is a one percent decrease in the likelihood that an individual is receiving public assistance," and as receiving public assistance is one statistical indicator of poverty, a lower commute time is likely to help directly reduce poverty.
If the proposed stations serve communities that currently have long commutes, then there's a good chance that a frequent light-rail line will (at the very least) make commutes for those living near the station easier and faster.
Do we see that in the results?
It appears so. By calculating the people within a half-mile-radius of the proposed stations (using the Census Bureau's 2015 approximations by census block), we can look at the breakdown. We see first of all, that these MetroLink stations are targeting several parts of the city that are much denser than the areas currently served by MetroLink. In particular, the segment along South Jefferson is nearly entirely in denser communities than the areas surrounding current MetroLink stations in St. Louis City. Many of the areas also have an already high share of transit-users compared to car-using commuters, and that seems unlikely to decrease as accessibility improves. This means it seems likely to reduce commute times for the many residents already using transit around these proposed stations
We also see that the stations serve a large proportion of black St. Louisans: the population within a half-mile of the proposed Kingshighway station (at North Kingshighway and Natural Bridge) is almost 100% black. Since these are the same stations with some of the highest commute times in the city, reducing commute time should directly combat racial income inequality. It's impossible to know for sure (it might be possible, for example, that North-South would not help anyone, since it turns out that everyone in North City commutes to North County, and everyone in South City to South County. I find it rather improbable that this is the case.) but we can say with some confidence it is quite likely to improve commute times, and hopefully have some effect of alleviating poverty, at least near the stations.
On a basic logistical level, the expansion will also likely help many of the area's transit commuters who, we can see in the below comparison, generally tend to face longer commutes than car-users. Frequent and fast transit service to dense North City and South City neighborhoods will provide many residents who work Downtown (or elsewhere along MetroLink) the option to commute more often. This will, in turn, reduce the need to own a vehicle in St. Louis (often preferable to very long transit commute times, but problematic for those struggling to make ends meet, as owning a vehicle can cost twice as much as using transit, often reaching over 20% of commuters' incomes).
On top of that, transportation investment has also been shown to attract new residents, an important step if St. Louis is to stymie its continued population decline (notable especially in the areas North-South MetroLink will serve).
The transit portion of the proposal, it seems, is a good step forward. The other aspects are still up for debate (particularly funds directed towards SLMPD's "real-time intelligence [surveillance] center," which would likely target people of color disproportionately), but it's safe to say the North-South Line specifically will likely be a net positive for the city. And while there are many ways in which we might improve transit in St. Louis (and for less money, too, e.g. through more frequent bus service or bus rapid transit), other efforts have not gotten off the ground. Support for MetroLink expansion, on the other hand, seems to be widespread: every citizen who spoke at a recent public meeting on the tax seemed in favor of transit expansion. And, as we've seen above, it seems quite possible that it will provide new and improved transit service to many residents whose transit commutes are currently a burden, and may serve to reduce racial and economic disparity.
So if it takes St. Louisans being excited about the "sexier" option of light rail, we should harness that excitement: it needs to get done.
* The original word here in the quote was actually "increase," so, oddly enough, I have reversed the meaning of the direct quote from Mr. Majeski. However, every other reference to commute times and poverty, including in the "Discussion" and "Conclusions" sections of the paper, ascribe shorter commute times to lower poverty (which Majeski measures by the size of individuals receiving public assistance). I believe that this is a typo, and appreciate his study greatly, but if I am mistaken, I am happy to correct this.