MetroLink celebrates 20 years on track

News-DemocratJuly 26, 2013 

Metro train.

— The region's light-rail transit system has come a long way.

Wednesday will mark the 20th anniversary of MetroLink service in the St. Louis metropolitan area. In a celebration Friday of this milestone, Metro President and Chief Executive Officer John Nations called the transit service a tremendous success.

"This system, by all accounts, by any measure, by any expectations, has far exceeded the expectations which were first placed on them in the 1980s and the early 1990s," Nations said.

"And that is due to the fact that the region worked so hard to establish the rail system and built the partnership to make it necessary."

The celebration was Friday morning at the Grand MetroLink Station and Scott Avenue Transit Plaza in St. Louis with staff and other public officials who helped get things on track two decades ago.

Nations said a study from 1987 estimated that ridership on MetroLink would reach around 3 million annually by 2000. However, the St. Louis area transit authority bypassed that projection within the first few months. More than 14 million people rode the light-rail service in 2000.

Today, more than 17 million people annually ride MetroLink across 46 miles of track spread between 37 stations in St. Clair County, St. Louis and St. Louis County. Seventy-five percent of riders come aboard to go to work and another 20 percent ride the train to attend schools such as Southwestern Illinois College, which has a MetroLink station on the college's Belleville campus.

Nations said former U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello of Belleville played an integral role in securing federal money for the bi-state transit development. Costello, a Democrat who represented southwestern Illinois in Congress from 1988 until earlier this year, said officials in Washington, D.C. initially balked at the light-rail development.

"They said there's no way that you will meet your ridership numbers," Costello said. "Well folks, I'm proud to tell you ... this MetroLink system outpaced the projections of the federal bean counters."

He also said the transit system has become an example that federal lawmakers and officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation have used as a model for other transit developments.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said MetroLink has provided a vital service that has added to the quality of life and the economic development throughout the region.

"We believe Metro continues to grow in importance and in popularity and we look forward to another 20 years of successful transit-oriented development around the route," Kern said.

Nations said MetroLink has generated an estimated $2 billion in residential and commercial development projects, such as the Emerson Park residential housing development in East St. Louis.

On July 31, 1993, the first train went into operation and carried passengers between Fifth Street and Missouri Avenue in East St. Louis and North Hanley Road in North St. Louis County. The following year, a new station opened on the East St. Louis riverfront by the Casino Queen and another was added that same year at Lambert St. Louis-International Airport. By 2001, further light-rail expansion into the metro-east brought two more stations to East St. Louis, including one at Emerson Park, as well as three stations in Belleville plus stops in Washington Park, Fairview Heights, Swansea and outside Scott Air Force Base.

Bi-State Development Agency Board of Commissioners Chairman David Dietzel said that a one-way ticket to ride the train remains affordable at $2.25 -- up from the initial $1 fare. He said the board is committed to continue potential expansion and improvements.

"I am honored to be part of that leadership team two decades later, putting personal agendas and biases aside, we are a group of diverse individuals with a united goal of moving transit forward and providing the best service we can, today and for many decades into the future," Dietzel said.

Nations said the most common question he is asked is one he cannot answer: Where will the light-rail system go to next? But he did say the board is working to move transportation forward in the metro area by developing public-private partnerships and working with local, state and federal leaders to explore more transit options in Missouri and Illinois.

"The goal is continuing to expand this magnificent system to better serve residents and visitors in our region," he said.

Said Costello, "If you'll continue to keep MetroLink safe, clean and affordable, you'll continue to break ridership records and this system will continue to be one of the best in the nation."

Some milestones in MetroLink's history:

July 31, 1993: MetroLink opens to area commuters. Initially, the light-rail system covered 14 miles from 5th Street and Missouri Avenue in East St. Louis to North Hanley in North St. Louis County.

1994: First MetroLink station opens at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and another station opens by the Casino Queen on the East St. Louis riverfront.

1998: A second MetroLink station opens at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport's East Terminal.

2001: MetroLink opens the Belleville Station on Scheel Street in Belleville, Memorial Station near Memorial Hospital on Frank Scott Parkway in Belleville, College Station at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville, Swansea Station off Illinois 159, Fairview Heights Station at Illinois 159 and St. Clair Avenue, Emerson Park Station in East St. Louis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center Station by the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Boys & Girls Club Center in East St. Louis, Washington Park Station on North Kingshighway.

2003: MetroLink opens the Shiloh-Scott Station by Scott Air Force Base.

2006: MetroLink opens station in Shrewsbury, Mo., extending a second westward rail line from the Forest Park Station.

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 239-2526.

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