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Mass Transit in St. Louis Needs a Bailout

April 1, 2009 Accessibility, Public Transit, STL Region 16 Comments

As of Monday, the St. Louis region has a smaller mass transit system:

MetroBus and MetroLink light rail service has been drastically scaled back due to budget limitations at transit agency, Metro.

The issue, like many, is very complex.  The short take is Metro has too little money to provide the limited services we used to have.  Rather than more frequent service, to make transit more attractive, we are getting less.

How did this come to be?  Metro’s expensive legal battle (& loss) over the most recent MetroLink expansion is an easy scapegoat.  But the fact remains that public subsidy of the private car has been ever increasing while transit agencies must fight for crumbs.

The Bi-State Developmemt Agency, known as Metro since February 1, 2003, has been underfunded since its formation sixty years ago in 1949.  Forty-six years ago today, April 1st 1963, Bi-State took over transit routes from the St. Louis Public Service Company and “14 other local bus operators” as part of a $26 million dollar bond issue (Source: Streets & Streetcars of St. Louis: A Sentimental Journey by Andrew D. Young).

Capital funds are easier to find than operating revenue.  Public mass transit is an important part of every strong region.  We need to fix our system and soon.


Currently there are "16 comments" on this Article:

  1. KBO says:

    I totally agree that transit can’t continue this way. Yesterday was my first day traveling under the new system. My commute from UMSL to Shrewsbury is noticeably longer because of the increased wait time between trains. Bus service to anywhere within a six block radius of our southside neighborhood is sparse at best. The closest relevant bus stop for me is about a half-mile away; it used to come right to the end of our street. It’s a major bummer, and I’m seriously considering going back to being a two-car family.

    I can’t even read the P-D comments on any article about the cutbacks. For some reason, the nasty trolls really hate transit and think that only communist, vegan, welfare queens must use it. It makes me so, so, angry. Why can’t people understand how vital public transit is for a thriving urban area? I hope you continue to speak out for transit.

  2. dumb me says:

    I think we need a new word for “urban”. When the average person reads urban, what do they think? Most of them probably think of crowded, crime ridden areas where people have little money and like to fight in the street.

    The lexicon needs to change so that when what we consider dense, traditional, walkable neighborhoods, places with alleys in the back and front porches instead of garages in the front, oh and lots of street trees and neighborhood parks, there is a nice, palatable word to describe it. Something other than “urban”. Yuck! “Urban”. Please, something else. Anything else!

    Kirkwood, Webster and Ferguson are as urban as lots of the city, but people don’t call them “urban”. They call them “leafy suburbs”. We need to rebrand ourselves. How about urbane. It sounds much more dignified and chic than urban. If we start calling ourselves urbane, maybe then the bulk of region won’t be so overcome with fear about us?

  3. James R. says:

    We don’t have a smaller mass transit system now, we have a thinner mass transit system, and that’s a big part of the problem. Probably half the problem. The other half is not treating mass transit (and national rail) like any other infrastructure projet – highways, bridges, rail, electrical and phone grids, sewer, water, etc. Of course, some would say we’re now treating the rest of our infrastructure as poorly as we’ve treated mass transit.

  4. john says:

    Dooley says “We just don’t have the money.” No kidding, after wasting millions on the Extension and numerous other poor decisions, the County looks to the state for a bailout. The trouble here is mass transit isn’t important to a critical mass of voters… they have MoDOT to supply their needs.
    – –
    The bigger problem (above and beyond money)is the lack of leadership particularly in promoting a transportation strategy that is based on synergies instead of divisiveness. The EWGC approves projects for the region. We once had an extensive mass transit system that served the city and suburbs but it was sold and dismantled.
    – –
    Need MO money? Sell the Extension to WashU/BJC, it was built for them and will be a large money loser for the foreseeable future. Otherwise, close it down and in its place put a bike-walking-jogging path which will be inexpensive to maintain and can be used by everyone without increasing taxes. The Extension by design is a failure and will continue to burden the system unless dramatically changed.

  5. mike says:

    Actually, the Extension makes it possible for folks like me, who live in Oakland, to take the bus and Metro to the airport and back. It lets me drop my car off on Olive Blvd in U City for repairs and get home–in a circuitous way, but faster than the old pre-Extension bus connections. It gets me downtown faster. Does it help Wash U? Sure–but I think Wash U on the whole is a net gain for St Louis, especially when we consider the med school and its relationship with Children’s Hospital.

    I teach at Meramec, and now a number of my students, particularly the ones who depend on Call-A-Ride, have a very difficult-to-impossible time getting to and from school. This transit system drawdown has many more consequences than just making it tough for commuters. Some of our most vulnerable folks, the disabled of St Louis County who attend the community college, are now almost without the ability to get an education.

    Sure, there’s lots of blame to go around in terms of poor management, and sure, public transit is underfunded at all levels of government, and sure, we think we pay a lot of taxes (move to New York, where we lived before we moved here, and see what a lot of taxes REALLY looks like!). All those are good reasons to have voted against Prop M. But I think the folks who said no need to be able to explain their decision to my wheelchair bound or epileptic students who can’t drive and who now can’t go to school.

  6. Tim E says:

    Metro doesn’t need a bailout. Instead, Slay and Dooley need to find a way to provide a reasonable revenue source within the I-270 area in order to provide decent service that would benefit the most who desire it and leverage Metrolink to its fullest. Prop M didn’t make sense as it included everybody in St. Louis County and no one in the city and covered everything without some clean definitions (Reminds me when St Louis Community College had an all or nothing bonding issue). Heck, the Daniel Boone extension wasn’t stated as the preferred route until two weeks before the election. I simply refuse to blame anybody in West County or unincorporated areas. They don’t demand transit, they don’t want it and why are we assuming any different. What West County community leaders want is some selective service as Chesterfield is showing and will find a way to pay for it.

    With that in mind, local voters are not the problem. It is Dooley and Slay convincing Nixon and area legislators that we need some changes in state law. State laws, as far as I can tell, are very restrictive and led us to the Prop M effort. What can the state do without adding funding to operations?

    First, pass the Senate bill currently in state legislator that will allow TDD’s for transit. That would be a big change and allow leader, businesses and voters advocate transit where it is wanted. Let West County figure it out later.

    Second, Allow city to apply the 1/4 cent sales tax that city voters have already approved. That would put bus routes within the city back on the map.

    I voted yes on Prop M, but I’m also advocate for operational expenses paid by local revenue sources and a more accountable board. The previous board and Salci’s decision (as supported by the board) to pursue the lawsuit set us back years. It doesn’t help that people thought Metrolink extension final design was going to be built on a preliminary estimate after major changes. This has been mislabeled as a cost overrun and that label has never left. In terms of construction, we call these change orders.

  7. Brian says:

    Dooley could have the County give Metro all of the 1970’s half-cent sales tax originally intended for transit. But of course, the County has been dipping deeper into that fund for roads. One such example is designing a grade-separation for Hanley and Manchester. Sure, that project has since been scaled back, but what a waste to begin with, and what a vivid example of the County’s true priorities.

  8. GMichaud says:

    The failure in leadership is evident. Yes Metro was (is) mismanaged. It looks like most of capitalism is mismanaged also. The health industry, the auto industry, the banking industry and wall street are all failures in America.
    Taxpayers are correct of course, the corruption is widespread, but it goes under the guise of donations instead of bribes.
    Transparency of organizations such as Metro are a real question in the attempt to build mass transit and the city. Too often transit planning is not connected to urban planning, diminishing the important role of transit in creating an artful and prosperous region.

    The citizens should take the power.

    It is a disgrace as well as a serious problem that when there is a crisis of world energy, global warming and the need to build a sustainable society while St. Louis is cutting back the very thing it should be expanding. If government policies were sane and had some real meaning to people’s lives, entirely different actions supporting transit would be occuring.

    In fact I would not underestimate the ability of the the economics to be used as a means of further suppression. The elimination of Metro routes is not affecting the guy driving a Mercedes in Ladue (unless his maid can’t get to his house). Rather it is another blow to the working middle and lower class.

    The people running things are not the best and the brightest. Far from it. Look at their body of work.

  9. Jimmy Z says:

    I’m biased. I like the Denver model, where an elected board runs a quasi-governmental agency that has its own, dedicated taxing resources, providing public transit to an area comparable in size to the metro St. Louis region, and doing a good job. The two big problems we face here are no dependable revenue sources (Metro’s current quandry is a direct result of the County’s decision to redirect $10 million to highways) and no direct accountability of the board running the agency – they’re appointed by the governors under the recommendation of local elected officials – is their agenda transit, development, protecting turf or killing the system from within? But the number one problem remains funding – a ¼% sales tax is simply not enough to do more than put a few buses on the road. To run a good, integrated, well-thought-out transit system likely will require a full 1% sales tax plus expanding the boundaries to include St. Charles and Jefferson counties. The question is whether enough voters can be convinced before what we have now whithers away to nothing . . .

  10. john says:

    No doubt Denver does it better while Metro has alienated supporters through mismanagement. In building the Extension, I polled 25 neighbors and 19 were for the expansion, 4 against and two unsure. Since built: two of the opponents became supporters as they now get to ride free as they are doctors at BJC and 15 of the previous supporters are now against Metro. Those who once supported Metro voted NO last year as Metro’s performance (especially the bus route changes) made them non-supporters.
    – –
    We need an efficient mass transit system that permit synergies with current favored routes to get the public to substitute this form of travel and to replace car dependencies. Metro has failed to provide such alternatives to a critical core of travelers in the region. Alienating mass transit supporters will not help its cause.

  11. Tim E says:

    It is kinda of ironic for the county in regards to the cross county extension. Webster Groves community has fought and succeeded in not having I-270 extended and now is fighting a major interchange rehab at Hanley & Manchester. Thus, the only good tranpsortation alternative for south county workers to get to the Clayton Central Business District, bar a major buildout connecting Hanley to a new Des Peres River Road interchange at I-44, is a further extension of the Cross county line south. It would be nice if county leadership could start expressing the alternative and why the Cross County will be worth its investment in the long run (if we can bring it to its full potential).

  12. GMichaud says:

    The problem is much deeper and systemic than whether are not a sales tax hike has been passed or not. It is a failure in leadership, in addressing large and major problems the nation and region face.
    It is not about operating expenses and taxes. It is a failure to build a city and region that is dynamic and successful.
    Everything is behind closed doors. It is a failure of transparency on the part of Metro and organizations such as East West Gateway and MoDot.
    This does not mean public hearings, but an active, engaged and ongoing dialog with the public.

    The real question is whether to fully to establish a balanced and diverse transit system, rather than one that is almost totally automobile orientated. The decision seems to be for the later, but no one in the public has been consulted or informed.

    The obvious incompetence of Metro and the political and business leadership now running things should not be a distraction from the major issues surrounding the role of mass transit in a future society. A society that is self sustainable and without reliance on foreign oil.

    If I was asked to design a transit system sure to fail, it would resemble what St. Louis now has. That failure will build more failure and the excuses will continue.

    The leadership of this region and state are incompetent in their own right. They speak for corporate profits at the expense of the welfare of the people and the country. In the end if the bribing of the government fully succeeds, it will create an America not worth living in.

  13. john says:

    The other problem is the continuing support of a failed design as many of these comments demonstrate. Even worse is the idea of expanding a failed design. Failure + Failure = Success?
    – –
    When the decision was made by Westfall not to complete 170 to 44, who could have imagined that a MetroExtension would be marketed in its place? Now Hanley Rd is being transformed into a 141 but without the room and proper supporting infrastructure. I’m not a fan of expanding highways in urban cores but this story is a great example of how a poor transportation design (poor leadership) leads to more divisiveness and a lower quality of life. In the end, the ability to create a sustainable, livable and prosperous communities becomes increasingly difficult and extremely expensive.

  14. Jimmy Z says:

    Unortunately, the other half of the equation in the metro area is a development pattern that is very transit-unfriendly. Outside of the old downtown cores of St. Louis, Clayton and St. Charles (and maybe Maplewood, Webster Groves, Kirkwood, U. City and Ferguson), the major universities, BJC and, yes, New Town, we don’t have a walkable infrastructure. The challenge with any transit system is that first mile and, especially, that last mile. Transit needs density to function well. Modern transit can create virtual density on the “home” end by providing park-n-ride lots or structures. A lot of people who won’t walk a block or two to a bus stop will willingly drive a half mile, or two, to a free parking lot IF it offers security and convenient schedules. The real challenge is on the destination end – if you can’t walk (or bike) to where you want to be, and the bus connections don’t work, transit simply won’t be an option for most people.

    Say we were successful and convinced the voters to support higher taxes for Metro and we built a new light rail line along 40/64 to Chesterfield Commons and another one along 141 between Arnold and Earth City, then on into St. Charles. We’d want stations at least 2 miles apart, so the real challenge becomes where to put them, to serve the highest number of potential commuters – the current suburban office and retail developments simply aren’t aimed at pedestrians. Sure, a few existing buildings would end up being close to a station, but 80%+ would be more than the ideal ¼-mile away. To change this paradigm will require changing both develpment assumptions and zoning, to say nothing of growing a demand for more jobs and the infrastructure needed to support them. And it is a chicken-or-egg quandry – with no assurances of better transit, why build higher densities, and without higher densities, how can transit be justified?!

  15. Scooterjo says:

    My experience on the new 98 bus route created after the cuts. On 4/2/09 I could not ride my scooter to work due to rain being in the forecast. I had a physical therapy appointment at 4:15 in South St Louis. I got off work at 2:30 walked approximately a mile or so to the nearest bus stop on the South Outer 40 road. I waited 15 minutes for the bus. I got on the #98. This bus went around the North Outer 40 and South Outer 40 THREE times before it FINALLY got on Hwy 40 to go to the Ballas Transit Center. We did not get to CLAYTON until 3:59PM. I did not get to my PT appointment until 5PM (I still had to catch a metrolink and then a bus, for which I had to wait almost 30 minutes)…that is TWO AND A HALF HOURS AFTER I got off work!
    This is simply unacceptable!
    Just because people don’t have cars does not mean it should take us a long time to get somewhere. There is NO reason it should take 90 minutes of MY time to get from WEST COUNTY to CLAYTON!

    Eric Schmdit (R) said that Metro needs to change its “image” and I suspect many county residents agree with him. When I read of that comment I think Mr Schmidt meant that the complexion of those who ride the bus should be lightened. I suspect a majority of white people in this area have never ridden a bus in St Louis and most of it is because of racial and class prejudices. If the ridership of Metro was predominantly white I suspect it would be more well funded and more respected.

    A public transit system like what we have now screams to the world that St Louis WANTS to be a third or fourth tier community. Heck the buses don’t even go around the downtown area anymore, they stop at the Civic Center Metrolink stop and people can either hop on the Metrolink or walk to their destination. Of course Metro’s schedulers (how many of them actually use this system?) didn’t think about those with mobility issues.

    When St Louis fails air quality standards this summer don’t blame me, I ride a scooter and Metro when I can’t ride my scooter on account of bad weather.

  16. Eric says:

    The problem with punishing Metro management for mismanagement is that it isn’t punishing Metro management, it’s punishing those of us who must (or choose) to rely on public transit. Cutting public transit is a deathknell, because it almost always sets off an irreversible decline — the less money a transit system has, the less people it reaches, and the less useful it becomes — meaning that anyone who can choose to use private transportation will — once the public transit system becomes entirely ghettoized as a “poor people” mover, it becomes less and less politically feasible to fund it.

    Missouri and St Louis truly made a pisspoor decision with the transit cuts and I suspect it will be looked back on as an unbelievably foolish and shortsighted decision 20 years from now (as will so many decisions made in the age of the automobile, urban sprawl, and cheap energy)


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