Metro’s vision for public transportation includes staunch community support

By EVAN YOUNG

The Metro transit agency’s vision for St. Louis-area public transportation includes commuter rail service, express bus routes and smart card technology, among other ideas.

It also includes staunch community support — something Metro officials soon will find out if they have.

Metro will conduct eight public engagement meetings this month to promote and gather feedback on the long-term plan it’s creating to address the St. Louis region’s transit needs.

Following weeks of preparation and presentations to Metro’s strategic planning committee and Board of Commissioners, agency officials unveiled an outline of the transit plan to local government leaders last week during an invitation-only gathering in celebration of Metro’s 60th anniversary.

The long-term plan — Metro’s first — includes short-, mid- and long-range goals: Restore and enhance transit service in the next five years; identify major capital projects in 10 years; and expand service while introducing new transit modes and technologies in 30 years.

After gathering the first round of public input this month, Metro will tweak the plan and send it through another series of public meetings in December. The final version of the plan is scheduled to be completed and presented by next spring.

While the plan will be “bottom up” — driven by public input — Metro officials already are exploring options for enhancing and expanding transit service over the next few decades.

Besides expanding MetroLink light-rail service, Metro hopes to one day implement new modes of transit across the bi-state region, such as commuter rail service to suburbs, rapid transit buses and “Flex” routes — bus routes that are fixed but also can pick up individual riders who flag down the buses.

Officials also want to pursue new technological amenities for riders, such as swipe-able smart cards to replace individual tickets and passes, as well as intelligent transportation systems at Metro stations, which can provide riders with real-time updates on arrivals and delays.

However, it appears Metro’s first priority is to find the means to sustain the Metro-Bus and corresponding Call-A-Ride paratransit van services it temporarily restored in August after significant cuts last spring.

Facing a budget shortfall, the Metro board in December voted to eliminate more than 500 jobs and discontinue one-third of its MetroLink light rail, MetroBus and Call-A-Ride van services.

Those cuts took effect March 30, but several discontinued bus routes subsequently were restored Aug. 3 after Metro received $12 million in one-time federal stimulus funds and roughly $7 million over two years in Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant money from the Federal Transit Administration.

But Metro’s restoration plan will end in May unless permanent and stable funding is secured.

Besides financial support from its riders and the Missouri and Illinois state governments, Metro annually receives funding from transportation sales taxes collected by St. Louis city and county.

In the county, the agency receives 50 percent of the revenue from a half-cent transportation sales tax, which dates back to 1973, and revenue from another, quarter-cent sales tax that county voters approved as Proposition M in 1993, half of which is used for operation of MetroLink and half is set aside for future MetroLink construction. The other 50 percent of the 1973 half-cent sales tax funds road repairs.

Metro had hoped to boost its county revenue stream last November with the passage of a second, half-cent transportation sales-tax ballot measure — also called Prop M. However, 51 percent of county voters rejected the proposal, which would have generated $80 million a year to be split evenly to fund maintenance of current Metro transit systems and construction of new projects.

Prop M could show up again on next April’s ballot — after the public gets a glimpse at Metro’s long-range transit plan.

And Bob Baer, the agency’s president and chief executive officer, said last week that the agency would continue to lobby state and congressional lawmakers for additional monies.

Baer also said Metro may seek to increase the sale of advertising at its rail and bus stations as an alternative revenue source.

Rider fares, which are higher in St. Louis than many other transit systems around the country, make up less than a quarter of Metro’s revenue — so simply raising them won’t solve the funding problem, Baer said.

Still, the Metro board in November approved the first in a series of fare increases to raise roughly an additional $7.2 million this year to help combat projected 2010 deficits.

MetroLink one-way fares increased from $2 to $2.25 on Jan. 1 while MetroBus one-way fares jumped from $1.75 to $2.

Rail and bus fares also will jump an additional 25 cents July 1, 2010.

“I don’t think there’s an easy answer,” Baer said of the funding dilemma. “It’s going to take a community effort.”

The first public-engagement meeting for south county residents on Metro’s long-range plan will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27, in the Mehlville Senior High School Library, 3200 Lemay Ferry Road.

Residents also can voice their opinions about public transit this weekend at “A Forum on Public Transportation: Local, State and National Perspectives.” The event, sponsored by Metropolitan Congregations United, will take place from 9:30 to 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 10, at Zion United Methodist Church, 1603 Union Road. Doors open at 9 a.m.

Elected officials scheduled to attend, according to a press release, include U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis; Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay; Rep. Patricia Yaeger, D-Lemay; Rep. Walt Bivins, R-Oakville; and 6th District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-south county. Baer also is expected to attend, the release stated.