Two homicides on or near MetroLink trains less than a month apart this year put crime on the transit system back in the spotlight, to the point that officials set aside $20 million for public safety and changed how the system that spans the Metro East and the St. Louis area is policed.
Those efforts and talk of adding turnstiles will mean nothing, however, if the people who ride the rails and buses don’t feel safe. Plus, closing off the system by adding turnstiles will take millions of dollars and several years.
Public transportation is the only way Michael Anderegg, 29, gets around, taking the Red Line from the Convention Center station west to Wellston, and then a bus to Maryland Heights, to his job at a telecommunications company.
Anderegg, a St. Louis resident, said he’s never felt unsafe, but he’s used to getting hassled or witnessing drug deals or fights.
“It’s sketch, but it’s the only way I have to get to work so, I’ve just been dealing with it for a while,” Anderegg said recently while waiting for his train. He also mentioned something that he’d been seeing since April.
“It’s so weird seeing actual security on the train,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re going to a different post, or if they’re writing summons, or what.”
Anderegg said he started seeing more guards in April after the fatal shooting on a Red Line train near the University of Missouri-St. Louis and less than a month after a man was shot on the platform at the Busch Stadium stop and later died at a hospital.
Policing on the MetroLink is currently a bit of a hodge-podge. Three separate departments — St. Louis, St. Louis County and the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office — handle criminal activity like assaults or shootings but are authorized to work only in their own territory.
The Bi-State Development Agency has its own guards and also contracts with a private company to handle lower-level things like fare evasion or loud music. Recently, the agency’s guards have been accused of impersonating police officers.
Determining crime levels on MetroLink trains is difficult. Bi-State recently began posting public safety logs again, but the information only goes back to April. Plus, the data come from MetroLink safety officers only, not from the individual departments.
But a recent shift could make getting that information easier. Earlier this month, the three police departments agreed to create a unified force that would have jurisdiction everywhere on the system .
“A sheriff could get on the system at Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County and ride it all the way to Lambert,” Bi-State CEO John Nations said. “A county officer could get on at our Shrewsbury station and ride it all the way to Scott Air Force Base.”
St. Louis County Police Capt. Scott Melies will be in charge of the new force, which eventually will be dispatched from a central location. The departments also have pledged to add more officers to the task force, although riders shouldn’t expect one on every train, according to St. Louis County chief Jon Belmar.
“I think that’s why we’ve had very useful and serious discussions about what does platform security look like,” Belmar said. “Do we have the ability to have robust turnstiles, platform security where we know that when folks buy their tickets, that they’re going to be traveling on Metro?”
Turnstiles would free up officers to deal with issues beyond fare evasion, Belmar said.
For the time being, Bi-State’s board approved an additional $20 million for public safety, available starting July 1, to be spent on anything.
“Turnstiles, cameras, whatever the law enforcement community thinks would help with security on the system,” Nations said. “There’s a recognition that just adding more personnel alone will not be sufficient in the long-term.”
St. Louis resident Diane Lynn, 58, welcomes any talk of turnstiles. She takes transit by choice and lives across from a MetroLink station. (Her co-workers at Enterprise Fleet Management are almost always shocked when she tells them she doesn’t own a car. She uses the money she saves on gas to travel.)
Like Anderegg, Lynn said she usually feels pretty safe on the train. But an incident last year at the Delmar station made her rethink her car-free life.
Lynn had just gotten off the bus to board the train home when she heard gunfire from the platform. A teenager had fired into the crowd, hitting someone.
“You take a chance. But you take a chance pretty much anywhere you do. So for me, it’s kind of like, but for the grace of God kind of thing. I don’t want to not have that option,” she said.
Turnstiles would have helped in that situation, Lynn said, because it would have been harder for the teen to get onto the platform.
“It creates the environment now where somebody gets on the train, they create havoc, they get off the train, they go at a different stop, they get back on the train going the opposite direction and create havoc on that side and it’s just a vicious circle,” she said of the open design.
But Malcolm Spence, 72, a retired engineer who lives in Florissant, said MetroLink’s turnstiles and extra security plans won’t do much.
“With St. Louis, the Metro system problem is really an extension of the city’s crime problem. There’s nothing that you’re not going to experience on the train system that you couldn’t experience at the Galleria in the parking lot late one night, or at the ballgame,” he said.
Spence takes the train from North County to events downtown when he doesn’t want to deal with the hassle of parking — putting him on MetroLink at the busiest times. With safety in numbers, he said, he’s not worried about crime.
But turnstiles might be needed to get safety in numbers at all times, Anderegg suggested. “A lot of people would like it to be a closed system,” he said.
David Wise, 34, is among them. The south St. Louis resident used to occasionally take MetroLink to special events, or after biking around the city, but stopped after the recent homicides.
“I feel like it’s an unnecessary risk at this time, and see we mostly use transit to get to places for entertainments or events. Whether or not is it statistically it is safer to drive in a car, there is something to feeling safe that most people want,” he said.
Wise said his wife, who has traveled more extensively than he has, always wondered why MetroLink did not have turnstiles. They should have been a part of the system from the beginning, he said, but he’s glad they’re part of the conversation now.
But in the end, most riders just want to know if things are going to change, including Anderegg. “They’ve amped up security in the past and then it’s just kind of petered off,” he said. “Hopefully this isn’t a cycle that’s going to repeat itself.”
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