St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann has a simple answer when asked if he has heard much recent local interest in exploring a MetroLink connection between St. Louis and St. Charles counties.
“No,” he said.
That answer may be a reflection of the county’s continuing stance toward MetroLink despite St. Louis County’s decision to move toward exploring an expansion of commuter lines there.
One major reason is that St. Charles County residents are still in love with their automobiles. And that love isn’t expected to fade unless prices at the gasoline pump rise significantly.
More than 90 percent of the county’s households have at least one vehicle; more than 65 percent have two or more, according to U.S. Census figures.
“As long as they do, (public transportation) is not going to be a priority,” Ehlmann said. “I’ve always said that the interest in that sort of thing is totally dependent on the price of gasoline. Five dollars a gallon and people will be asking about a different way to get to work.”
Much of the county’s focus in recent decades has been working with the Missouri Department of Transportation and raising its own transportation funding through a local sales tax to pay for road, bridge and highway transportation improvements. St. Charles County voters turned down a half-cent sales tax increase in 1996 to extend MetroLink to St. Peters and establish a countywide bus service.
Metro, the major bus and transportation provider in St. Louis city and county, ran an express bus route between its MetroLink station at North Hanley to as far west as Mid Rivers Mall, but dropped the route due to low ridership and budget issues.
Regarding St. Louis County’s exploratory actions, Ehlmann said any expansion would be challenging given costs that could go as high as $1 billion and the availability of federal money.
Nonetheless, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger told the East-West Gateway Council of Governments at its late May meeting that the county planned to spend $1 million of its transportation funding to study light-rail expansion. The council, which is a forum for local governments in Missouri and Illinois and a clearinghouse of federal transportation funding, is expected to conduct the study.
The council’s planning staff is expected to explore previously reviewed proposals including a route from Clayton to Westport, from Lambert to Florissant, and from Shrewsbury to Butler Hill Road. The closest MetroLink station to St. Charles County is at Lambert International Airport.
Ehlmann, who is an East-West Gateway councilmember, said fellow councilmember Stenger had not told him about those plans prior to the announcement.
“I’ve pretty much stayed out of those issues because St. Louis City and St. Louis County is where it is,” Ehlmann said.
Ehlmann has worked with Stenger on other transportation issues, particularly MoDOT continuing a study of the Interstate 70 corridor in both counties, but his support of projects is selective.
“One thing that is a big mistake is that I think we need to quit using transportation dollars for tourism, like on the University City trolley. I’m sure it’s a great idea and I’m sure it’s great for tourism, but is it going to help anybody get to work?” he asked.
Meanwhile, even though Metro no longer provides express bus service in St. Charles County, there is a public transportation link between the county and MetroLink. The St. Charles Area Transit (SCAT) bus service, a public transportation provider, offers commuter trips during the work week from St. Charles County to the MetroLink station at North Hanley Road, located just off I-70. A SCAT bus picks up riders at six locations including St. Joseph Health Center, Ameristar Casino and four commuter lots. The fare is 50 cents.
SCAT ridership has stayed steady.
“We have about 150 riders per day on the SCAT Transit System via the I-70 shuttle to the Metro station on Hanley Road,” said Daryl Hampel, superintendent of the St. Charles Public Works Street Division. “This operation is fairly constant year-to-year, and we have not noticed any spikes in ridership recently.”