East-West Gateway Council adopts Metro’s plan for public transportation

Quinn appears unimpressed by Metro’s long-range vision

By EVAN YOUNG

The East-West Gateway Council of Government’s Board of Directors voted unanimously last week to adopt the Metro transit agency’s long-range plan for public transportation in the St. Louis region.

Metro officials will release the final draft of that plan, “Moving Transit Forward,” this month.

While both the Metro and East-West Gateway governing boards have signed off on the agency’s 30-year vision, the public’s desire to support it financially remains to be seen.

St. Louis County voters will consider a half-cent sales-tax increase — Proposition A — on April 6.

The sales tax would generate an estimated $75 million a year for Metro. It also would trigger a quarter-cent transit sales tax in St. Louis city.

County residents currently pay a quarter-cent transit sales tax. As proposed, the new sales tax would be collected indefinitely.

Roughly 51 percent of voters in November 2008 rejected a similar half-cent sales tax increase, Proposition M, which would have been a 20-year tax.

“Moving Transit Forward,” a collaborative effort between Metro and East-West Gateway staff, calls for the continued restoration of MetroLink light-rail, MetroBus and Call-A-Ride paratransit van service that was cut last March 30 to combat financial problems following Prop M’s defeat.

Millions of dollars in federal stimulus and grant money helped Metro restore half of the roughly 30 percent of routes cut, but those funds will run out in May.

Prop A revenue would be used in the short-term to bring Metro service back to pre-March 30 levels, Metro officials have said. Should the ballot measure fail in April, however, officials have warned of additional service cuts.

The plan also presents possibilities for Metro service enhancements, such as new “Smart Card” ticketing technology and transit centers that would allow riders to transfer between bus and light-rail modes.

It also provides a menu of options for light-rail and bus service expansion over the next five, 10 and 30 years. New Metro-Link lines extending to Florissant, Westport and Butler Hill Road are proposed, along with a new rapid bus system with routes along Interstates 70, 64, 44 and 55.

The plan estimates that, at roughly $60 million per mile, one light-rail extension could be built every 10 years. At roughly $35 million per route, one rapid bus line could be built in five years.

Metro also could piggyback on a potential high-speed rail project from Chicago to Kansas City and offer commuter rail service from Alton, Ill., to Pacific.

The plan assumes consistent financial support at the local, state and federal levels. Per an agreement with St. Louis County if Prop A passes in April, Metro cannot use taxpayer money to expand service unless those projects secure federal funding.

Under that same agreement, Metro would have to submit to and pay for external performance audits of its management and operations every three years.

East-West Gateway, the St. Louis region’s planning authority, will determine when and where any Metro expansion will occur.

During a presentation to the County Council last week, Metro planning officials said the East-West Gateway board will not necessarily prioritize possible light-rail and bus expansion projects, but likely will select one project at a time as federal funds become available. They anticipate the board deciding on the first project in the next 12 months.

However, critics of “Moving Transit For-ward” and Prop A contend the plan doesn’t spell out a clear price tag for the expansion projects it proposes, and that not everyone who pays the new sales tax will benefit from doing so.

Public Transit Accountability Project spokesman Tom Sullivan recently told the Metro Board of Commissioners and agency staff the “Moving Transit Forward” plan is merely a “campaign document” that’s reminiscent of plans Metro has produced in the past before seeking tax increases.

During last week’s County Council Committee of the Whole meeting, 7th District Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, told Metro officials that their long-range vision “doesn’t sound to me like … much of a plan.”

“(W)e don’t know if any of these things will happen. We don’t know when they will happen … And you’re not saying what they’re going to cost,” Quinn said.

Quinn, 3rd District Councilman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, and 6th District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-south county, voted against placing Prop A on the April 6 ballot when the issue went before the council late last year.

But Jessica Medford-Miller, Metro’s chief of planning and system development, told Quinn last week that the agency must have a plan in place to seek federal funding.

“You don’t receive federal funding until you have a project and apply for those funds,” Medford-Miller said. “And the federal government isn’t going to call us tomorrow and say: ‘Would you like $300 million for light-rail?’ We have to have that project planned. And this is that critical first step.

“So it might seem like a letdown that we’re not telling you what you’re going to get and when you’re going to get it, but this is a critical first step to get us toward any of these things.”

In the past, the St. Louis region has “suffered” from “multiple plans” for public transit, Metro President and CEO Bob Baer told councilmen.

“People in the community were confused about what is the plan. Is it the (East-West) Gateway plan? The Metro plan? The county plan? This will be the one definitive plan for the region,” Baer said. “… If you don’t have a plan to know where you’re going, where are we?”

Baer said the Federal Transit Administration recently released a list of 29 cities that will receive federal funding for public transportation in 2011.

“Here’s the bad news: we’re not on that list,” he said. “St. Louis is not even in play on that list of cities that are going to get federal money. The federal government will require a plan. The federal government will want to know that the local elected officials are involved and have passed this plan. So unless we work together as a region and have one definitive plan, we’re going to be falling behind further and further in terms of competing with other cities.”

East-West Gateway’s adoption of “Moving Transit Forward,” combined with the passage of Prop A next month, could give Metro a shot at making the FTA’s 2011 funding list, Baer said.

“Every place we go, people say ‘What’s in it for me?'” he said. “This plan will tell them what’s in it for them, subject to funding.”