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TRANSITion: Without state or federal help, Metro depends on sales taxes to pay for operations

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 19, 2010 - Last April, Metro's printed proposal for a $179 million operating budget opened with some stark words from Metro chief Robert J. Baer:

"The agency has been plagued with flat or declining revenue sources for many years. The annual budget process can best be characterized as a series of one-year 'temporary fixes' while in pursuit of a permanent solution."

Baer added, "But our ability to do more with less has come to an end."


This April, Metro hopes to turn things around. On April 6, voters in St. Louis County will turn thumbs up or down on a half-cent sales tax increase for transit. Together with a tax approved some years ago in the city but shelved until the county goes along, the increase would bring in about $80 million a year.

Metro says half would go toward restoring the last of the severe cuts made in March 2009. The other half would expand MetroLink's rail mileage and add zippy new rapid transit buses.

And if the county vote fails, as it did in November 2008? More cuts in service, says Metro, with almost no service beyond Interstate 270 -- a repeat of the cuts made in March 2009 before state money offered a temporary reprieve.

Metro's critics say the agency dug itself into a hole with its MetroLink expansion to Shrewsbury -- built without federal aid and wrapped up a year late and $126 million over budget.


State and federal contributions to Metro's red ink

But through the years, other layers of government have helped to dribble red ink onto Metro's budget.

On the top is the federal government. True, Washington gives local transit agencies lots of aid for capital expenses. For example, when Metro buys a new bus, the feds pay 80 percent.

But Metro has to use its own money to fill up the new bus' fuel tank and pay its driver -- the operating expenses.

Until 1998, the feds gave local transit agencies operating aid, with Metro getting about $22 million a year. But Metro transit operating chief Raymond A. Friem says, "The federal people couldn't account for where this aid to local agencies was going. So they decided to stop giving operating aid and limit the aid to capital projects."

Metro soon felt the pain. In 2001, the agency was forced to cut services and boost fares to cover a budget gap. After that, as Baer said last year, Metro scrambled and juggled to make the numbers work. But time ran out in November 2008, when county voters said no to the sales tax.

Some of the governmental responsibility must also fall on the state of Missouri.

Metro planning chief Jessica Mefford-Miller says, "Nationally, states kick in 23 percent of transit operating budgets. But historically, Missouri's share has been less than 1 percent."

Last year, Missouri's share jumped to 6 percent, thanks to a $12 million shot in the arm with federal stimulus money. But that money was a one-time-only grant, and the cash pool will soon run dry.

Mefford-Miller says, "Illinois does much better. For every resident in Missouri's part of Metro's service area, Missouri kicks in $1. In Illinois, the state kicks in $37 per resident."

Why is Missouri so tight with its tax aid? Three potential reasons come from Les Sterman, once the executive director of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments and now with the Southwest Illinois Flood Prevention District Council.

"Generally, Missouri's state government and legislature are not particularly understanding of the needs of the state's big urban areas," he says.

"Part of it is the political culture -- the lack of clout of urban areas within the General Assembly. In Illinois, Chicago is much more dominant in the Legislature, so Chicago gets a much more sympathetic ear in Springfield than St. Louis gets in Jefferson City.

"Then, locally, there's the urban-suburban division, which translates into division within the General Assembly. We've never spoken with a united voice."

Streetcar historian Andrew D. Young of Creve Coeur notes that back in the 1920s, Missouri began collecting gasoline taxes for highways. Ever since, Young says, the state has focused on cars and trucks, not trains and buses.

Lately, St. Louis County made a similar shift. Traditionally, the county used 63 percent of its transit tax for mass transit, with only 37 percent going to roads. But under County Executive Charlie Dooley, the transit-road ratio shifted in 2008 to 50-50, costing Metro $8 million to $10 million a year.

Metro's red ink

Finally, Metro has made messes of its own -- most notably, the Shrewsbury extension, with its price tag of $676 million, a whopping $126 million over budget. Metro saw a demand for the route and built the 8-mile stretch without federal aid -- and with the knowledge that when the trains started to run, Metro would lack enough money to operate them.

Mefford-Miller says the project was done totally with local money "because the St. Clair County expansion was under way, and federal aid is limited to one project at a time." As work progressed, controversy erupted as local politicians and residents pushed to get some stretches tucked below grade, at great expense.

What about the operating shortfall for Shrewsbury? Mefford-Miller and Friem note that the East-West Gateway Council of Governments has the final word on MetroLink expansions -- and that East-West Gateway told Metro that if the line was built, the operating money would come.

"But those funds depend on the voters," Friem says -- and so far, the voters have said no.

At any rate, says transit backer (and former St. Louis Alderman) John Roach, "The people who messed up the most recent MetroLink expansion are gone." Then-Metro chief Larry Salci walked the plank. To replace him, Metro's board bought back Baer, who ran the agency in the 1970s.

But the PR damage was done. Critics like Clayton's Tom Sullivan charge that overall, Metro has run up a record of fiscal irresponsibility. He faults Metro on such details as its refusal to charge for parking at its park-and-ride lots and its lack of turnstiles to deter freeloading MetroLink riders.

Mefford-Miller and Friem note that parking lots here charge so little -- as little as 75 cents a day, compared with $20 to $30 in a place like San Francisco -- that a parking fee by Metro would probably push many transit users back into their cars.

As for turnstiles, Mefford-Miller and Friem note that Los Angeles is experimenting with them. If those turnstiles boost revenue enough to cover their cost, Metro will rethink its policy.

In the larger sense, the Metro officials hope voters will see mass transit as a public asset. Mefford-Miller says that Metro "keeps 45,000 cars off the roads. It connects people with jobs. It's a regional asset. But as individuals, sometimes it's hard for us to think regionally."

Friem notes that students make up 10 percent of bus riders and 7 percent of MetroLink riders. Without full service, he asks, "Where's the next generation of nurses going to come from?

Harry Levins is a freelance writer. 

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