Twenty years ago today, MetroLink trains began rolling in the area. We've seen the system grow out to Scott Air Force Base, to the Galleria and Shrewsbury. We've seen it grow in popularity, blasting past the 3 million rider prediction by 2000 to 14 million that year and now 17 million riders a year. We've seen an elaborate bike trail grow next to it.
But for all the fares paid, all the tax dollars raised and spent, what we haven't seen is enough of a pay-off.
We see crime, from the foul-mouthed drunk to a woman being raped after she left the train. We see trains that are slow -- nearly double the time from Belleville to the airport that it takes to drive. We see inconveniences that include 20-minute intervals on the weekend and off-peak times, train routes that don't go to enough of the places we want to go, plus the oddities of needing an extra quarter for fare and punching the ticket you just bought.
Most disappointing is that we don't see enough of the development that was touted and promised along the light rail line.
Emerson Park is the exception, and a solid example of the light rail's promise in what was a blighted crack- and hooker-infested area of East St. Louis. Those problems are still nearby, but families with well-kept yards and children on bikes are now the sights that greet people to the area.
But what about Fairview Heights? What about the Memorial and Scheel Street stations in Belleville? If East St. Louis can parlay their station into an urban renewal story, then what about these well-heeled communities with tax increment financing and other development tools at their disposal?
So there's the challenge: Taxpayers invested heavily in this system for 20 years. Another 20 should not pass before some savvy leaders and developers parlay the system, plus $4-a-gallon gas, plus a desire for greener, more connected lifestyles into successful communities built around MetroLink.