This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 31, 2009 - As Metro's cuts go into effect, lawmakers in the Missouri General Assembly are weighing starkly different responses.
State Rep. Rachel Storch, D-St. Louis, argues the state needs to take immediate action; she proposes an emergency spending bill to ease a nearly $45 million deficit.
While lawmakers, such as state Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, and state Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, fear the consequences of using state funding to help municipal transit systems, they are considering legislation to make the program self-sufficient.
House Budget Chair Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, proposes something of a third option: a one-time infusion of cash contingent on Metro's convincing voters to pass a tax increase for operating expenses. That option, however, could take months to implement.
If anything, the debate over Metro illustrates the political and structural complications of wrangling state aid for local transit systems. The General Assembly usually declines to help pay for mass transit, and a decision otherwise could set a new precedent.
"We're looking at some unique ways to try and address the need," said Hobbs, chairman of a House committee in charge of transportation infrastructure projects. "But, man, it's not an easy one to figure out."
Prospects for using stimulus money
Metro's cuts are severe -- scrapping routes, cutting back on others, dismissing workers and reducing Call-A-Ride services. These cuts have propelled some lawmakers to call for immediate action.
"Right now because of the drastic situation with Metro, people have got to put behind them whatever animosity they feel toward Metro based on the past," Storch said. "We have to deal with the crisis of today and the fact that people are relying on these bus routes to get to work, they're relying on Call-A-Ride... simply to live their daily lives."
Storch is looking to federal stimulus money to aid Metro. House budget writers deliberately held off on allocating most of the state's share, looking instead to present separate budget bills later this session.
"In terms of the magnitude of funds that we're talking about, that probably gives us the easiest access to a pot of money," Storch said, referring to the stimulus funds.
In an interview Monday, Icet said he would be amenable to using stimulus funds for a one-time cash infusion. Money would be sent to Metro, he said, with the understanding that the system would convince voters to pass a local tax increase next year.
"For one year...the state will step in to try and help you," Icet said. "But [Metro] getting that ballot initiative passed is all on [its] head. You've got to get that passed or else there's no more from the state."
Icet said it could take weeks -- if not months -- for separate stimulus bills to get to Gov. Jay Nixon's desk. One quicker route, Storch said, is for Nixon to ask for an emergency budget bill. Passing such legislation would get funds to Metro immediately upon passage, she said.
Looking at other options
Some lawmakers doubt that stimulus money is a real option.
That's because stimulus funds for transportation must go toward capital projects, Stouffer said. That would include road or highway construction, not operating mass transit. Since Metro's problem is operational in nature, he added, the state can't use stimulus funds for assistance.
"None of it is allowed for operating expenses," said Stouffer, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "They would be eligible for capital expenses, but their big problem -- and the problem in Kansas City, too -- is operating expenses. So that doesn't fit."
Storch said it may be possible to cash meant for "budget stabilization" to aid Metro.
But if stimulus money isn't available, Stouffer said, it's doubtful the legislature would find general revenue dollars for Metro.
"With an extremely tight budget, it's difficult to see," he said.
Instead, both Stouffer and Hobbs are looking to legislation sponsored by Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, which could make it easier for a tax increase for Metro to pass.
Currently, St. Louis and St. Louis County vote separately on changes to Metro's funding. That has made it difficult to increase the funding. Last November, voters in St. Louis County narrowly rejected a sales tax increase; city voters had approved an increase earlier.
"We passed it in the city, but the county didn't," Wright-Jones said. "That's a legislative nightmare."
In effect, Wright-Jones' bill would allow voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County to vote on tax increases for Metro at the same time. That might make it easier to pass a tax increase, which would then provide Metro with a more stable revenue source.
The current system "doesn't make sense," said Wright-Jones who considers her proposal "the best way to get rid" of that. "My understanding is they're going to go out and ask for this sales tax again. Maybe they can do it under this particular legislation. That way, they can stop that county-city issue."
Since the legislation would affect the entire state, Hobbs said Wright-Jones' bill could help other jurisdictions.
"Springfield's interested in it, too, because there are a couple of communities around Springfield that they would like to (incorporate) into their transportation system," Hobbs said. "And instead of having all of Greene County vote on it, they can pick the communities that would be a part of it."
Fear of commitment
If state lawmakers do help Metro, it would be a significant change in how the state funds mass transit. A House budget bill that passed last week provides about $4 million to urban, small urban and rural transportation systems for the entire state.
Proceeds from the state's gas tax go toward road construction and maintenance, not public transportation. Stouffer said including mass transit into that mix would require a change to the state's constitution.
Ultimately, Storch said, the state is going to have to step up.
"Universally, public transportation requires a subsidy," Storch said. "And Missouri lags so far behind including adequate funding into public transportation. "
Storch said the problem is not just limited to urban areas. Elderly transportation in rural parts of the state, she said, have trouble getting state funding.
But Hobbs said aid to Metro could prompt other municipalities to ask for similar arrangements.
"Surely Columbia would feel the need to say 'Hey, we need help with our bus service.' Springfield and everybody else would too," Hobbs said. "I don't know how we're going to address this, but we're looking for ideas."
While Stouffer says public transportation can also save money by reducing the wear and tear on roadways, convincing people to spend money can be tricky.
"We're in love with rail and mass transit, which has its value," Stouffer said. "But the problem is that the best run transit system in the country only returns about 49 percent of its operating expenses. And in Dallas, they've returned less than 11 percent."
"So when you create a transit system, the public has to realize that this is something we're going to subsidize for the rest of its life," Stouffer said. "And I'm not sure that comes across when you try to start a system."
Jason Rosenbaum, a fomer state government reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune, contributes to Missouri Lawyers Weekly and KBIA radio in Columbia.