Some leaders question how Metro would spend revenue from sales tax

By EVAN YOUNG

Some area leaders are questioning how the Metro transit agency would spend revenue from a new county sales tax.

During an executive briefing Friday on Metro’s long-range transit plan, agency officials were asked to explain how they would spend funds generated from a half-cent sales tax that may go before county voters next April.

The County Council was scheduled to take an initial vote Tuesday — after the Call went to press — on legislation that would put the measure on the April 6 ballot.

The sales tax would generate $80 million a year for “public transportation purposes,” depending on the economic climate.

Metro also receives revenue from another, quarter-cent county transit sales tax and half of the revenue collected from an additional half-cent sales tax.

More than 51 percent of county voters rejected a sales-tax hike similar to the one currently in the works — Proposition M — in November 2008. But the latest ballot measure’s language differs somewhat from that of Prop M. As currently proposed, this half-cent sales tax has no sunset date and is not earmarked for a specific purpose.

Prop M would have been a 20-year sales tax, with half of its revenue used for Metro operations and the other half dedicated to MetroLink light rail expansion.

County Executive Charlie Dooley requested the council consider the sales-tax legislation. Mike Jones, his senior policy adviser, said the administration was “still playing with the language.” However, Jones told the Call last week voters next April would know that the “underlying premise” of the proposal is the same as Prop M.

“If you go to the polls and you haven’t seen any campaign literature, you’ll still know that half the tax is for maintenance and half is for expansion,” he said.

After Prop M’s defeat last year, the Metro Board of Commissioners voted to raise rider fares, cut hundreds of jobs and eliminate more than 30 percent of its MetroLink, MetroBus and Call-A-Ride paratransit van service for the disabled, to combat financial problems.

Service cuts took effect in March, but millions of dollars in one-time stimulus funds and federal grant money helped the agency restore a number of routes in August. However, Metro officials have said the temporary restoration plan will end in May unless a more permanent funding source is secured.

In addition, agency officials have said additional funding is needed to proceed with Metro’s long-term, public-driven plan to expand and enhance transit service throughout the region. The plan includes five-, 10- and 30-year benchmarks.

Several recent community engagement sessions on Metro’s plan have revealed the public prefers MetroLink expansion but would be open to other transit modes, such as Bus Rapid Transit — BRT — or in-creased MetroBus frequency, said Jessica Medford-Miller, Metro’s chief of planning and system development. Service enhancements, such as more lighting and restrooms at bus and rail stops, also were popular.

Metro officials have studied the public’s initial input to determine which expansion projects most likely would strengthen the region and also could receive federal grants.

Among potential light-rail corridors is “MetroSouth,” which would extend from MetroLink’s current station in Shrewsbury past Interstate 270 to Butler Hill Road in south county.

Potential BRT corridors include a line extending from downtown St. Louis along Interstate 55 into Arnold, as well as a line traveling from downtown to Eureka along Interstate 44. But with an estimated cost of $60 million per mile for new light-rail lines and $35 million per route for BRT lines, Medford-Miller said not all potential corridors would make it into the Metro plan’s final draft.

“This is not a financially sustainable plan,” she said at last week’s executive briefing, referring to a map that contained all possible expansion options. “Keep in mind the final plan is going to have to narrow some of this down. We can’t accomplish all of this right now — we don’t have the resources.”

She said the agency may keep “high-dollar” light-rail expansion within I-270, the region’s “core,” and utilize BRT for “outlying communities.”

Ray Friem, Metro’s chief operating officer, said St. Louis would need to push for increased mass transit funding locally and from Missouri to match federal grant dollars. Metro currently receives $1.3 million a year from the state, he added.

“We can’t build a robust transportation system without dedicated support from the federal and state governments,” Friem said.

But at one point during Friday’s briefing, discussion turned to what benefits, particularly in the short-term, taxpayers would receive if they approved a new county transit sales tax next April.

Linda Henry, executive assistant to 6th District Council-man Steve Stenger, D-south county, asked Friem how much of the new sales-tax revenue would Metro use for expansion and “when would that expansion be completed?”

Initial tax revenue would be put toward “restoration of the basic service levels that we had prior to March 2009,” Friem said.

“That does not mean that the system that we were operating comes back. Having withdrawn so much service and put a piece of it back, we’re a little bit smarter about things. We’ve learned some additional things about how we may be able to more efficiently use some of the operating monies that we even had prior to March or were using prior to March,” he said. “So it doesn’t mean a restoration of service, it just means we’ll bring the levels of the system back … and that happens relatively quickly.”

As for expansion, Friem added, “This plan will address what’s possible, and maybe potentially what should be done, but I think that there’s still a little bit more vocal discussion to be done before we say: ‘OK this, then this, then that.'”

“So there’s no time frame?” Henry asked.

“No, there’s definitely a time frame,” Friem replied. “For example, each mode comes with its own time frame. BRT lines are pretty quick, an LRT line can take about eight to 10 years. The thing about it is that the model takes into ac-count the inflation from 2009 dollars for the construction. So the longer you wait, a $600 million railroad becomes a $900 million railroad.”

“Ray, I think she’s asking: ‘What do we get for the half-cent (sales tax)?’ Can you narrow it down? …” asked Tim Fischesser, executive director of the St. Louis County Municipal League, which voted recently to endorse the county transit sales-tax increase. “Do you have an idea for this April ballot how this money would be split?”

“Yes. You’re going to see restoration of the system and some expansion,” Friem said. “We don’t know what that expansion might be, I mean, that’s a regional decision that has to be made … We have in the model, given some assumptions that’s going to happen at the federal level, in the 30-year plan …”

“Well now we’re talking about the five-year plan.” Fischesser said.

“Well in the five-year plan, you couldn’t build a light rail in five years. We’re not in front of the federal government right now …,” Friem replied, at which point Fischesser, seemingly aggravated, stood up as if to leave the briefing, but eventually sat down again. “Excuse me?”

“It just frustrates the hell out of me,” Fischesser said. “You’re asking us to support something in April on the five-year thing, and we want to know if any of that is going to be for light rail, and you’re not answering the question.”

“No, what I’m saying is that we’re not in front of the federal government right now,” Friem said. “We don’t have a grant open with the federal government to build a railroad, and we don’t have the money to do it ourselves.”

“I’m talking about the money you’d be getting (from the sales tax),” Fischesser said. “Are you going to reserve some for that (federal grant) match?”

“Absolutely,” Friem replied.

“Well can you explain that?” Fischesser asked.

“Immediately we would start putting aside money or spending money on engineering, which would be again, when you get down from corridor to route, is about a five-year process,” Friem said. “So you would be spending money on the design of the route that the region picked.”

“I’m not saying we spend all this time on a budget here, but I think the woman (Henry) was saying that if you’re asking us for $75 million in April, do you have any idea of how that would be used in the short term?” Fischesser said.

“Ideally, a successful local initiative or local initiatives would get us in the short range restoration of bus service, some of those enhancements, some of those Bus Rapid Transit corridors and we would like to see a light-rail transit corridor,” Medford-Miller replied. “It would be about 10 years before we actually saw operations of it.”

“You’re looking at about 50 percent of that going to immediate operations and 50 percent of that going to some form of capital expansion,” Friem added later. “That’s roughly the formula.”

Noting the East-West Gateway Council of Governments would have the final say on Metro’s future expansion projects, Friem said, “We’re producing a plan that says: This is the region’s capacity in the next 20 to 30 years. But we’re not necessarily making a statement as to the order things need to occur.”

After the transit sales-tax bill was introduced Dec. 1, Stenger told the Call he wanted assurances from Metro that south county would benefit directly from the new tax.

He said he supports public transit and is sensitive to south county residents who were affected by Metro service cuts in March, especially Call-A-Ride patrons, but added that he wants to make sure his district “receives something for its money.”

“If they want the 6th District’s vote, they’re going to have to show me the benefit to the 6th District,” Stenger said.