After 30 years of delays, redesigns, St. Louis transportation hub opens

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ST. LOUIS -- Nearly 30 years ago, about the time when "intermodalism" became a buzz word, city officials here determined that a downtown hub uniting Amtrak, Greyhound, Metro buses, taxis and other forms of transportation would be a boon to the city.

Last week, after a rebudgeting, redesign, relocation and delays too numerous to chronicle, the Gateway Transportation Center held its grand opening.

The sleek, elongated building is at 15th and Poplar streets in the heart of downtown St. Louis, tucked under a highway next to the Scottrade Center, home of the St. Louis Blues National Hockey League team. The art deco facade of the Sheraton St. Louis City Center provides a dramatic backdrop.

Built in modern industrial style brightened by indirect, cobalt-blue lighting, the center houses the Amtrak and Greyhound ticket offices and waiting room on one end and Greyhound and Metro bus piers on the other.

Escalators and walkways covered in brightly colored glass panes lead to the Amtrak platform. From St. Louis, Amtrak serves Chicago; Kansas City, Mo.; and San Antonio, with continuing service to Los Angeles three days a week.

Greyhound serves 35 destinations from St. Louis.

The Civic Center Station of Metrolink, the light-rail system that serves St. Louis, the inner suburbs in adjacent St. Louis County and towns across the Mississippi River in Illinois, is accessible by ramp behind the building. Metrolink offers direct service to Lambert-St. Louis Airport.

Around the corner from the new center is the 19th century Union Station, a grand mix of every known Romanesque style, which served passengers in the heyday of rail travel.

After Amtrak moved out in 1978, it was converted to a shopping and entertainment center.Its Grand Hall serves as the lobby and lounge of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, which is slated to be reflagged as a Marriott next month.

Visible from the new transportation center's parking lot is another historical site: the sad little double-wide mobile unit near the train tracks that was meant to serve as the St. Louis Amtrak station for three years. Its tenure lasted 26 years. With no great affection, locals dubbed it "Amshack."

Mayor Francis Slay said that when he took office in 2001, "a lot of people wanted to know when Amshack would be replaced. It took longer than we hoped -- we had a $50 million design for property that the city did not control -- so we had to go back to the drawing board." He said Alderwoman Phyllis Young kept breathing life into the project throughout its long incubation.

The original design, conceived in an era of higher expectations, included lavish features such as a heliport that would connect downtown St. Louis with the airport.

Slay's administration took the design apart and scaled it down to more realistic dimensions, slashing its cost to $28 million.

Meanwhile, Amtrak moved into a more permanent temporary facility in 2004, a steel-and-masonry structure that is part of the Gateway station's design; it now will house operations and mechanical crews.

Tom Shrout, president of Citizens for Modern Transit, said that even though the center took a long time to complete, "it came about at the right time."

Ridership is up sharply on all forms of public transportation in the region, and Amtrak seats often sell out.

The center is likely to persuade even more passengers to use Amtrak. Many St. Louisans have been reluctant to use the tacky, temporary station.

Not only was it depressing, it did not inspire confidence in terms of safety and security, and locals told each other that using the nearby parking lot was an ill-advised risk.

Darlene Green, the city comptroller who will oversee the new center's operations, stressed that those issues have been resolved. The new structure is "clean and safe," she said, and it will be patrolled by security personnel around the clock.

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