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Commentary: Dreams of a perfect world - and Metro

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 13, 2008 - Issuing his first executive order, President-elect Barack Obama today decreed that the sun will continue to rise in the east and that dropped objects will still fall down. This tacit endorsement of the rotational direction of the Earth and the law of gravity was seen by many as an attempt to re-assure cultural conservatives alarmed by the prospect that we have just elected a White Sox fan to be president of the United States.

Though many observers anticipated a shift toward the political center by the Obama administration, some of the new president's more ardent supporters were clearly disappointed.

Moonbeam Haymaker, director of the New Age support group Trans-gendered Rhode Islanders Promoting Excess (TRIPE), complained, "How are we going to change things if we continue to cling to the same old stereotypes?" Ms. Haymaker's life partner, Fuzz E. Thought, lamented, "And I believed this guy was going to be different."

OK, so I exaggerate. But given some of the expectations I've heard from members of the Children's Crusade, I wonder by how much. It may have taken the "Get Clean for Gene" youth vote 40 years to finally arrive at the polls, but now that it's here it's a force to be reckoned with.

One of my daughters went to Obama's election night rally in Grant Park. She came home inspired but $100 poorer because, while she listened to an uplifting speech about unity and common purpose, somebody picked her pocket. Look kids, if reality could be determined by an election, cancer and hemorrhoids would have been voted off the island years ago.

One attempt to alter economic reality by popular referendum was rejected on Nov. 4 when St. Louis County voters narrowly defeated Proposition M, which would have created a half-cent sales tax to once and for all fix public transportation in the region.

As a city resident, I was unable to vote on the initiative. That's because St. Louis voters had already approved the increase back in 1993. We urban dwellers are usually agreeable to tax increases -- perhaps because we hope that somebody else will pay them. Whatever the motivation for its passage, the increase was mercifully made contingent upon county approval and has thus never been implemented.

The regional transit authority, Metro, traditionally operates at a loss. The agency consists of two basic components; bus service and the light rail train system, Metrolink. Despite generally high approval ratings from users, neither operation generates enough revenue to pay for itself. The defeated tax would have yielded an estimated $80 million annually; half of which would have covered current deficits with the remainder dedicated to Metrolink expansion. Now that the appeal for a taxpayer bail-out has fallen on deaf ears, massive service cuts are threatened.

Suppose, for a moment, that Metro was a popular tavern that was losing money selling beer for a dollar a bottle. The bar owner could a.) ask for donations from the neighborhood so that non-drinkers could help him stay in business, b.) expand his hours of operation so that he could sell more beer at even greater losses, c.) cut his losses by curtailing his hours of operation so that he could lose less money by selling less beer or, d.) raise the price of beer!

Option A represents a tax increase. To the extent that taxpayers already subsidize the operation - and fronted the funds to create Metrolink in the first place -- it would appear that we've gotten all of the milk we're likely to get from that cow.

In an editorial on Nov. 9, the Post-Dispatch suggested that the city enact a Metro tax independently of the county. Given the average income levels of the two entities, this novel approach creates a "Bad Robin Hood" -- one who takes from the poor to subsidize the affluent. I'll vote for that when the Post doubles its county subscription rates so that it can give the paper to city residents for free.

Expanding Metrolink into new markets is option B. Question: If you're losing money on each fare you sell, how will increasing ridership solve your problem?

Option C will reduce losses by providing poorer service. In the case of Metro, it could work if the agency were operating unpopular routes at the expense of those that are profitable. However, if you're operating on a loss per rider basis, as appears to be the case, the only way to eliminate the deficit through this option is to go out of business.

Analyzed economically, option D is clearly the preferred alternative in that it maintains service while taxing only the people who actually use it.

None of which is to say that the Metro directors couldn't reduce expenses on their own. The next time you're downtown, take a look at a Metro bus. Notice the size of the thing. Notice how awkward it is to maneuver in traffic. Imagine what it costs to operate and maintain this monster. Now count the passengers on it.

I haven't seen a bus filled close to capacity in years. Most of these dinosaurs could be replaced with cheaper and more fuel efficient 18-passenger vans with no appreciable loss of service.

Adequate public transit is sound public policy. But policy has to be based on reality to make sense. Like bridges to nowhere, nearly empty buses and rail service to places where virtually no one travels by train may be popular with the few who use them, but ultimately are not cost-effective for the rest of us.

Tune in next week when we learn why voting to outlaw crime won't make the streets safer.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

M.W. Guzy
M.W. (Michael William) Guzy began as a contributor to St. Louis media in 1997 with an article, “Everybody Loves a Dead Cop,” on the Post-Dispatch Commentary page. In addition to the St. Louis Beacon and now St. Louis Public Radio, his work has been featured in the St. Louis Journalism Review, the Arch City Chronicle, In the Line of Duty and on tompaine.com. He has appeared on the Today Show and Hannity & Combs, as well as numerous local radio and television newscasts and discussion programs.

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