Metro budget freezes fares, hiring, salaries

Staff report

Rider fares, hiring and staff salaries are frozen — and service restored — under the fiscal 2011 Metro budget approved recently by the transit agency’s Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners voted May 21 to approve an operating budget of $232.4 million for fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1.

Metro is projected to spend roughly $204 million in fiscal 2010 — about $4 million less than the roughly $208.3 million in expenditures commissioners approved for this budget year. In fiscal 2009, the agency spent nearly $211 million.

The new budget includes funding for Metro’s plan to restore transit service that was cut in March 2009 to address financial problems. That plan was unveiled last month after county voters approved Proposition A, a half-cent sales tax increase expected to generate at least $75 million a year for mass transit.

The ballot measure’s passage also triggered a quarter-cent sales tax in St. Louis city that was approved by voters in 1997.

While the service restoration plan initially called for reinstating MetroBus service and increasing MetroLink light-rail frequency in three phases — June 28, Sept. 6 and Nov. 29 — Metro officials said recently they will be able to combine the latter two phases and implement a larger second phase of restoration Aug. 30.

The agency hopes to restore transit access to 95 percent of households and 98 percent of employment centers in the Metro service area over the next year, according to officials.

The fiscal 2011 Metro budget also defers a rider fare increase that was scheduled to take effect this summer.

Commissioners in November 2008 approved a schedule of fare increases to generate more revenue for Metro after county voters rejected Proposition M, a half-cent sales tax increase similar to Prop A.

MetroLink one-way fares increased from $2 to $2.25 in January 2009 while Metro-Bus one-way fares jumped from $1.75 to $2.

They were scheduled to jump an additional 25 cents July 1, but Metro President and CEO Bob Baer said in a news release that it was not appropriate to raise fares before service was restored to pre-March 2009 levels. He also said fares are the only source of revenue keeping pace with inflation and already are in line with those charged by other transit systems.

Fares will remain unchanged until sometime in 2011, Baer said.

Metro will not receive the first round of Prop A revenue until late September, and the agency is not “flush with cash,” Baer stated. The 2011 budget includes such expenditure reductions as a salary and hiring freeze.

Employees will not receive a pay increase unless one is contractually required, and hiring will be limited to “mission-critical” employees — including 120 new drivers, mechanics and supervisors that will come aboard for the service restoration.