I recently spent some time in both Denver and Salt Lake City, both places that have many examples of urban planning successes and failures that serve as great learning experiences. Denver’s 16th Street Mall and Salt Lake’s “The Gateway” and City Creek Center developments represent large downtown projects worthy of serious study. One thing that all three of these developments have in common is the fact that they are served by light rail that runs on city streets. Both light rail systems are also very similar to ours in St. Louis (we use Siemens SD-400 and SD-460, while Denver and Salt Lake both use the SD-100 and SD-160). The main difference between St. Louis’ Metrolink and TheRide in Denver/UTA Trax in Salt Lake City is the height of the platforms and the lack of a dedicated right of way (at least in the center city). Because the platforms are basically just the sidewalks in Denver or sidewalk-like medians in Salt Lake, entering the train requires walking up steps (like getting onto the bus). To accommodate people with disabilities or parents with strollers, etc., both systems have ramps leading up to elevated platforms at the front of each train.
The elevated section of the platform can be seen towards the back of the above photo. Below is a picture of a UTA Trax Train approaching a platform, with the accessible section towards the lower right of the photo.
A view from the platform itself provides a better idea of how this raised section really works.
Seeing this system firsthand was a really good experience for me, because it served as confirmation that a new Metrolink lines could run right down the middle (or edges) of our excessively wide avenues in St. Louis. In particular, the new North-South line could run through downtown on Tucker (12th Street) and extend South along Gravois (which Tucker turns into) and North along N. Florissant (which Tucker also turns into). On the North side, the line could make a Westward turn onto Natural Bridge from N. Florissant to provide a more central route. Because Tucker is currently being torn up and replaced just North of Downtown, this would be a great place (and time) to begin the project. The route could connect to the existing Metrolink line with a Viaduct stop similar to the Grand Station, or riders could simply walk the two blocks to 14th street or the 4 blocks to 8th street to change lines. Maybe it could be the Green Line!
I know this idea is not by any means new, and a similar route is what most of us have been hoping we’ll get in the near future (particularly since the passage of Prop A), but I really think that this line on existing city streets would be most affordable, and would have the potential to do the most good. Extending Metrolink along Highway 55 is silly to me, because the areas around the highway are not pedestrian friendly. Gravois could really use some pedestrian activity to activate businesses that already exist and create a demand for more businesses along this street which essentially serves as a high speed thruway. The addition of light rail to this corridor will also reduce the auto traffic.
On the North side this line would serve as a much needed catalyst to spur development along the largely abandoned shoulders of N. Florissant (many of which are clean slates for new construction) and would also connect the steadily improving Old North St. Louis neighborhood with Downtown. Although Buses will remain the centerpiece of our regional transportation system, expanding our light rail increases the visibility of transit, the likelihood that it will be used, and that the neighborhoods it serves will be explored.