Transit agency will receive half of transportation sales-tax funds

By EVAN YOUNG

The Metro transit agency will receive half of what St. Louis County collects this year in transportation sales-tax revenue — though the local economy’s instability has kept officials from venturing a guess as to what the actual dollar amount might be.

The County Council voted 6-1 last week — 7th District Councilman Greg Quinn was opposed — to give final approval to legislation that appropriates 50 percent of revenue collected from a half-cent transportation sales tax to Metro for 2009-2010.

The other 50 percent is set aside for public works-related projects.

Last year, the county gave Metro $39.5 million of the roughly $77.3 million collected from the half-cent sales tax, which was established in 1973. However, the bill approved last week didn’t specify a dollar amount that will go to Metro for 2009-2010 because it’s not yet known how much revenue the tax will bring in, said Dianne Williams, director of communications for Metro.

“Right now, there’s just nothing stable in the economy at this point,” Williams told the Call. “And (the county’s) sales-tax revenue is really declining. So what has been written this time is that Metro will receive 50 percent of what is collected.”

County taxpayers also fund the transit agency every year through a quarter-cent sales tax which voters approved in 1994 as Proposition M.

A proposal for a second half-cent transportation sales tax, which went on the ballot last November as Prop M, and would have generated an estimated $80 million per year additional tax revenue for Metro, was rejected by 51 percent of county voters.

Voters could see another transportation sales tax proposal in April, but the County Council has yet to receive legislation requesting such a proposition be placed on the ballot.

Some councilmen called into question county funding for Metro while considering the 2009-2010 funding legislation during the past few weeks.

Facing mounting budget problems, the Metro Board of Commissioners in December approved substantial service cuts by eliminating hundreds of jobs, decreasing MetroLink light-rail train service by 32 percent and halting MetroBus and Call-A-Ride services in parts of west and south county outside of Interstate 270.

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 Quinn, who also voted against the funding bill’s initial approval, said he was concerned that when Metro’s temporary service restoration plan ends in May 2010, west and south county residents would again see complete elimination of service — but still pay the transportation sales taxes.

He motioned two weeks ago to delay the legislation’s final approval until he could get assurances from Bob Baer, Metro president and chief operating officer, that the 7th District wouldn’t be left without public transportation.

Before casting his “no” vote last week, Quinn said he hadn’t received those assurances.

“I think it’s grossly unfair to very large areas of St. Louis County,” he said of the legislation.

Stenger, who also hesitated to approve the measure without knowing what Metro had — or didn’t have — in store for south county riders, said he “felt comfortable” voting in favor of the appropriation after meeting again with Metro officials.

The 6th District councilman previously had met with Metro but said none of his questions were answered.

“We all understood that Metro has had difficulties and that every district experienced cutbacks (in transit service),” Stenger said. “But I didn’t want south county to experience disproportionally more cutbacks, and I was assured that wasn’t going to be the case.”

Stenger said Metro officials told him south county residents wouldn’t experience complete service elimination next May “any more than any other area of the county.”

However, University City resident Tom Sullivan told the council last week that it needs to keep an eye on any money it gives to Metro — something he says it hasn’t done for many years.

“Again, this council is going to appropriate, in this particular case, an unknown amount, but it usually goes into tens of millions of dollars, and you don’t really know how the money is going to be spent,” said Sullivan, who is the spokesman for the Public Transit Accountability Project. “The lack of scrutiny of county tax dollars going to Metro is something I’ve been talking about now for almost 10 years.”

Sullivan referenced the 2008 state audit of Metro in which State Auditor Susan Montee concluded that the transit agency’s financial decisions on the Cross County Extension to connect the MetroLink light-rail line to Shrewsbury “placed numerous burdens on Metro’s operating budgets for future years.”

The final $686 million cost of the project exceeded its original project budget of $550 million by $136 million.

Sullivan said the County Council never held any committee meetings to scrutinize the public tax dollars it gave to Metro.

Stenger later told the Call that, based on his conversation with Metro officials, he believed the county’s communication with — and oversight of — the agency would improve, possibly through meetings of the council’s Committee of the Whole and quarterly updates from Metro.