Metro OKs long-range plan; voters to eye Prop A in April

Critic says plan nothing more than a ‘campaign document’

By EVAN YOUNG

County voters will have roughly one month to review the Metro transit agency’s long-range vision for area public transportation before deciding whether to fund it with more of their tax dollars.

The Metro Board of Commissioners voted unanimously last week to adopt the agency’s “Moving Transit Forward” plan.

The East-West Gateway Council of Governments Board of Di-rectors is scheduled to consider adopting the plan at its regular meeting Wednesday, Feb. 24.

Metro officials hope to make “Moving Transit Forward” public in early March. That leaves about a month until the April 6 election, when county voters will mull Proposition A, a half-cent sales-tax increase to support public transportation.

Roughly 51 percent of voters in November 2008 rejected a similar half-cent sales tax increase, Proposition M.

The new 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.

The “Moving Transit Forward” plan calls for the continued restoration of MetroLink light-rail, MetroBus and Call-A-Ride paratransit van service that was cut last March to combat financial problems following Prop M’s defeat.

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

Should Prop A fail in April, Metro 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.

“Should our community choose to build light rail, these are the options we have to choose from,” said Jessica Medford-Miller, Metro’s chief of planning and system development. “Should our community choose Bus Rapid Transit, these are the options we have to choose from.”

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.

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

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

Metro officials believe the plan is fiscally responsible, but Public Transit Accountability Project spokesman Tom Sullivan contends it lacks a true price tag and essentially is a “campaign document.”

Sullivan told commissioners and Metro staff during last week’s board meeting that the plan resembles others that have been presented to the public just before elections, dating back to 1994.

Before a quarter-cent sales-tax proposal appeared on the ballot that year, Sullivan said Metro presented a plan for service expansion “with arrows going all over the place.” Yet after city and county voters approved Prop M, that plan was forgotten, he contended.

“It isn’t until we go into a campaign and you want a tax hike that you see all these plans,” said Sullivan, who also accused Metro of using public tax dollars to campaign for Prop A.

However, Metro President and CEO Bob Baer said it was “foolhardy to talk about 1994.” Baer called the Metro plan “honest” and rejected Sullivan’s claim that the agency was campaigning with public money. He said Metro was doing what it legally was allowed to do ahead of the April 6 election: “educate” county voters about Prop A.

“I don’t see any facts to substantiate the allegations,” he said of Sullivan’s remarks.