Metro board OKs service cuts; 600 jobs also will be eliminated

Reference to ‘fat’ in agency totally unfounded, Baer says

By BURKE WASSON

The Metro Board of Commissioners last week approved substantial service reductions, including cutting 600 of the transit agency’s 2,365 employees.

The board voted unanimously in favor of $35.7 million in transit cuts, the deferral of $10.9 million in non-immediate expenses and the reduction of $3.4 million in administrative costs to help offset a projected $50 million deficit in the 2010 fiscal year.

With these cuts, Metro officials estimate that the agency should operate without a deficit until June 30, 2010.

But officials also project a 2009 ridership loss of 9.5 million passengers of the 52 million passengers it would expect to serve if service levels were not cut.

Metro CEO Bob Baer said agency officials would assess the elimination of the 600 jobs from Jan. 1 to March 30, when Metro’s service cuts take effect.

Beginning March 30, Metro’s buses and Call-A-Ride vans will no longer run in south and west St. Louis County outside the Interstate 270 loop. MetroBus service will be eliminated 43 percent, including the closing of 15 express routes and other routes either consolidated or shortened.

With no bus service outside I-270 in south and west county, north county residents outside I-270 will have limited bus service. Metro officials said north county has a greater transit need than south and west county.

Metro Call-A-Ride van service to disabled riders will be reduced 15 percent.

Metro officials said this reduction is needed because the paratransit service operates within the same areas already serviced by fixed-route bus service.

MetroLink light-rail train service will be eliminated 32 percent by running those trains less often. Outside peak hours, the Shrewsbury line will convert into a shuttle connecting to the eastbound line from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport at the Forest Park station.

Additionally, no extra trains will be offered for special events in Missouri.

Among all of the approved cuts, Metro availability will decrease slightly in the city of St. Louis, but dramatically drop in St. Louis County.

While 98 percent of city residents will have Metro service within one-quarter of a mile from their homes, 58 percent of county residents will have service that near as of March 30. More than 93 percent of county residents currently have Metro service within one-quarter of a mile of their homes. And while Metro service will be within one-quarter of a mile from 99 percent of city jobs, just 71 percent of county jobs would have that service availability.

The decrease in service also comes with an increase in ridership costs beginning Jan. 1. The Metro board in November approved the first in a series of fare increases to raise roughly an additional $7.2 million next year to help combat projected 2010 deficits.

MetroLink one-way fares will rise from $2 to $2.25 on Jan. 1 while MetroBus one-way fares will jump from $1.75 to $2.

While Metro fares will increase by 25 cents per one-way trip Jan. 1, they also will jump an additional 25 cents July 1, 2010.

Metro officials estimate that the 25-cent fare increase plus requiring passes would next year generate an additional $7.2 million with a total ridership of 53.2 million people. The additional 25-cent increase plus passes in July 2010 would generate an additional $9.2 million, but also result in a projected ridership of 51.5 million people.

Metro officials have considered these options after more than 51 percent of county voters rejected Proposition M Nov. 4.

Prop M was a proposed half-cent sales tax that would have raised $80 million a year to be split evenly to fund Metro maintenance of public-transportation systems and construct light-rail expansion to Florissant and Westport. Besides Prop M’s rejection, Metro received $10 million less from St. Louis County in 2008 than it had in 2007.

With these factors in mind and Metro officials approving both service cuts and fare increases, transit officials do not believe that the proposed 2009 cuts will be enough after 2010, when they likely will have to continue cutting as regional sales-tax revenue is expected to drop 1 percent to 2 percent over the next three years.

Among the risks identified by Metro officials in making 2009 service cuts are:

• Revenue and ridership loss could exceed projections.

• Future reduction in federal funding due to decreased ridership and service.

• Declining sales-tax revenue. Metro currently receives funds from a half-cent sales tax in St. Louis County. Prop M would have doubled that tax.

• State reductions in Medicaid could reduce or eliminate transportation subsidies.

• The geographic impact of the public transit system would be reduced severely.

Baer apologized at Metro’s Dec. 19 meeting for making the cuts, but said the transit agency is “at the mercy” of other governmental entities to provide funding.

“We want to apologize for what we’re about to do,” Baer said. “It’s not something we want to do. It is something we must do … Metro has no taxing authority. We have no way of raising money other than fare-box revenues. Fare-box revenues account for approximately 20 to 21 percent of our re-sources, hardly enough to make up for the budget gap that we have. We understand the consequences on what is about to happen on the customers, on our employees … Six-hundred people will be losing their jobs. There’s been a reference to fat in this agency. That is totally unfounded. I challenge anyone to come in and prove to the contrary … We all feel the pain at the same time. So it’s important to keep in mind that Metro has no way to control our resources. We’re totally at the mercy of the city, the county and the state.”

But Public Transit Accountability Project spokesman Tom Sullivan contends the cuts were “not necessary” and believes the board rushed its decision.

“The Metro board and management seemed anxious to make the cuts, as if to spite voters after they rejected Proposition M,” he stated in a news release. “… St. Clair County (Ill.) Board Chairman Mark Kern attended (the Dec. 19) meeting of the Metro board and promised nearly $2 million in additional funding. This caused some speakers to urge the board to hold off a vote on the cutbacks, to see if additional funding could be obtained. But the board went ahead anyway.

“Prior to the vote, Metro CEO Bob Baer said he was sorry for the cuts, an apology that seemed somewhat short on sincerity. The matter had obviously been settled ahead of time and out of public view.”

Overland City Councilwoman Eedie Cuminale criticized St. Louis County government Dec. 19 for doing a poor job of promoting Prop M to county residents. The County Council also cut $10 million in Metro funding in 2008.

“The County Council didn’t do their job and whoever was in charge of PR didn’t do their job because I didn’t see any commercials other than at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Cuminale said. “Where were the yard signs? Where was the County Council in the neighborhoods promoting Metro?”