Metro transit agency eyes cuts in south, west county

Voters’ rejection of sales tax mandates cuts, LaBore says

By BURKE WASSON

Metro transit agency officials have recommended that 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.

The Metro Board of Commissioners is scheduled to consider those recommended cuts along with a reduction in Metro-Link light-rail service when it meets Friday, Dec. 19.

As proposed, MetroBus service would be eliminated 43 percent, including the closing of 15 express routes and other routes being consolidated or shortened.

While officials recommend no bus service outside I-270 in south and west county, north county residents outside I-270 still would 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 is proposed to be reduced 15 percent. Metro officials said this reduction is proposed because the paratransit service operates within the same areas already serviced by fixed-route bus service.

MetroLink light-rail train service is proposed to be eliminated 32 percent by running those trains less often. Outside peak hours, the Shrewsbury line would convert into a shuttle connecting to the eastbound line from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport at the Forest Park station. Additionally, no extra trains would be offered for special events in Missouri.

Among all recommended 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 still would have Metro service within one-quarter of a mile from their homes, 58 percent of county residents would have service that near as of March 30. More than 93 percent of county residents currently have Metro service within one-quarter of mile of their homes. And while Metro service still would 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 proposed cuts are coming after Metro officials reported earlier this year that ridership had increased. In the first four months of this budget year, passengers on MetroLink, MetroBus and Call-A-Ride reached 20.7 million — an 11-percent increase over the same time last year.

The decrease in service also comes with an increase in ridership costs beginning Jan. 1. The Metro board in November ap-proved 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 have proposed deferring $10.9 million in “non-immediate” expenses, reducing administrative expenses by $3.4 million and reducing transit service by more than $36.6 million.

While reducing transit service will cut into Metro’s projected deficit of $50 million in fiscal 2010, it also will reduce fare revenues as officials project a 2009 ridership loss of 9.5 million passengers of the 52 million passengers it would expect to serve if service levels remained the same.

Because of this, Metro officials went forward with fare increases. 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 now staring at 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. The Metro transit agency 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.

Because of all these risks and Metro officials’ belief that the proposed 2009 cuts likely will not be sustainable by 2010, Metro Senior Vice President of Transit Operations Raymond Friem believes there is a need for another “regional financial plan.”

“We do not believe it is sustainable beyond 2010,” he said. “We have a service fare-increase plan for 2011. And we’ll just have to wait and see what happens with ridership. Without some kind of regional financial plan, not just for transit but for all aspects and public services, it’s impossible to develop meaningful, long-lasting service plans that are executable and sustainable.”

After hearing the recommended cuts last week, Metro board member Richard LaBore said, “The voters in November said ‘no.’ After the information was disseminated by this agency and the media, we made it very clear that there would be consequences. Whether they’re intended or they’re not, those who voted ‘no’ and those who did not vote at all have said go ahead with cuts. Deal with the consequences …

“It’s very painful for me and for all the members of this commission and this staff … This agency has built up an admirable mass-transit system. Other cities are coming here to see what’s been done with this agency and to take those best practices back … It hurts to disassemble, to amputate a quality transit system. Words cannot describe the pain that’s going to come not only from the customers who cannot use the services that are going to be lost, but the employees who will lose jobs.”