East St. Louis Puts Transportation Planners On the Right Track

by Patricia Nolan 

In 1993, St. Louis launched its 18-mile regional light rail system, named MetroLink, which has since become a tremendous success. MetroLink’s 31-vehicle fleet transports as many as 100,000 people per day to and from all of the region’s major centers along the 18-stop MetroLink route.

Following MetroLink’s quick success, the Bi-State Development Agency, the region’s public transit operator for MetroLink, buses and para-transit service, began working with planning organizations and government officials to expand the light rail system into other areas of the region. According to the original plan, the next phase of MetroLink is to be an extension into St. Clair County, Illinois, a project that was approved by voters of the county’s Transit District in late 1993. The route will begin at an existing MetroLink station in East St. Louis and end at the Mid-America Airport in neighboring Belleville, IL. Twelve stations are planned along the extension which is approximately 27-miles long and passes through East St. Louis on the south side of a major interstate which has historically divided the city.

Residents of the East St. Louis neighborhood of Emerson Park first learned through an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that one of the planned stations was to be located near their neighborhood, but separated from the center of their community by the interstate. A local community-based organization, the Emerson Park Development Corporation (EPDC), immediately recognized that the proposed plan failed to coordinate with ongoing redevelopment plans for the neighborhood. In addition, local residents feared that the extension’s proposed route would be unsafe. It would travel through residential areas where children would find themselves playing near the tracks and it would be crisscrossed by streets where cars might run a grade crossing. Finally, the proposed station was designed to serve suburban commuters who could access it from the interstate, but ignored the transit needs of local residents.

EPDC was first organized in 1985 when neighborhood residents began undertaking neighborhood self-help projects in conjunction with the local settlement house. Today it is a 50-member 501(c)3 non-profit with a 150-page neighborhood improvement plan, an executive director, several environmental improvement projects, rehab projects new home construction projects for low-income families in the neighborhood.

The neighborhood of Emerson Park has suffered many of the same devastating trends as the rest of East St. Louis, but in many ways has been hit the hardest by the decline. Between 1970 and 1990 the Emerson Park neighborhood lost more than 75% of its population, and additional population loss has occurred since then. Official unemployment is high — 33.7% as compared to 14.4% for the county. In Emerson Park, over 58% of the families are living below poverty level.

When it became clear that the East-West Gateway Coordinating council and other agencies and officials were turning a deaf ear to Emerson Park’s concerns, EPDC decided to make the MetroLink project a priority. To help them develop an effective campaign for an alternative route, EPDC enlisted the University of Illinois’s East St. Louis Action Research Project. With the help of the University’s planners and architects, EPDC crafted a proposal that would route the rail along the interstate and crossing over to the north side. They argued that the south side route did not have an adequate amount of land available for redevelopment activities and commuter parking which would be required for the station. Furthermore, the alternative route would be less expensive to build than the route initially proposed.

The alternative route would enable a station to be sited where it would better serve local residents, who desperately needed better access to mass transit. Moreover, EPDC recognized that the construction of a light rail stop in their neighborhood would be a strong incentive for future redevelopment projects in Emerson Park.

Emerson Park’s Campaign

In order to strengthen their voice, EPDC conducted an aggressive advocacy campaign to local, state and nationally elected officials. By gaining the support of legislators, EPDC found a way to be heard by agencies like the Bi-State Development Agency, East-West Gateway and others involved in the planning of MetroLink.

The citizens of Emerson Park testified to local officials that they “wanted those making the decisions to realize that the expansion of MetroLink through East St. Louis is an investment not just in transit, but also in neighborhood economic growth and revitalization.”

At countless city council meetings and public hearings, EPDC focused on the following three points:

  1. The advantages of the north side alternative transit route.
  2. The revitalization impact upon residential neighborhoods was inadequately considered as part of the preliminary engineering review, which focused on how and where suburban commuters could access the system — locating the stops adjacent to the highway. Little analysis was made of the transit needs of East St. Louis residents. Because of their low incomes and area disinvestment, they are less likely to own automobiles but are more likely to travel out of their community for employment.
  3. Concerns that the future citizen participation process would be too limited and result in inadequate representation of neighborhood concerns. The common method of holding public hearings without the public having any real input or control in the planning process before the hearing would not suffice in this instance. EPDC demanded that neighborhood organizations be given representation on the planning committee for the extension. As an official part of the planning committee EPDC would be able to share its concerns and offer suggestions for improvement in a timely and effective manner.

Lessons Learned and Future Challenges

In the spring of 1995, after months of talking with local officials and developers, EPDC’s message was finally heard and affirmed by the announcement that the north side route with the 15th Street station had been officially adopted.

It would be nice if that is where the story ended. However, EPDC now faces additional challenges in getting the local government to commit its share of resources to making the 15th Street station more than a slab of concrete. MetroLink’s extension required each Illinois municipality where a stop is located to contribute at least $1.5 million to the development of the station. At this point, East St. Louis has refused to commit any funding to the Emerson Park station.

Although the city is facing tough financial times and has only recently begun to provide many essential services, the city does have the funding needed for the station in its Business and Economic Development and Community Development Block Grant departments.

One member of the EPDC stated that by refusing to fund this type of project the city is “making it look like they are fair and equitable by doing nothing for any neighborhood.”

In its struggle to get the city to support the station, Emerson Park has been recruiting other neighborhood organizations so that they can build the necessary numbers of people and votes that will gain the attention of elected officials.

On the positive side, Emerson Park has been a focal point for many of the city’s redevelopment activities, including a recent application to HUD for the Homeownership Zone program announced in July of this year. Also, within a half-mile of the proposed station Emerson Park has witnessed record numbers of demolitions of vacant and dangerous structures, clean-ups of vacant lots, several rehabs of homes and, for the first time in twenty years, the construction of two new homes.

In addition, the value of property has increased in anticipation of the MetroLink extension. A month before the route was officially announced one was able to purchase a parcel for $250, a month later that same parcel went for no less than $2,000.

In the end, the most important success from this endeavor was the ability of regular citizens, through organized and logical thinking and action, to make their case and ensure that the train did not leave the station without them.

Special thanks to all the members of the Emerson Park Development Corporation, Dan Hoffman, Prof. Robert Selby and the Bi-State Development Agency for contributing to this article.

Patricia Nolan is the planner for the University of Illinois’ East St. Louis Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center. For more information, write ESL NTAC, 348R Collinsville Avenue, East St. Louis, IL 62201 or call (618) 271-9605; EMAIL:panolan(at)primary(dot)net

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