Metro Board Member Responds to Show-Me Institute Op-Ed
The Show-Me Institute recently released an op-ed by research assistant John Payne, titled “Adding New MetroLink Lines Too Costly, Inefficient.” The piece appeared on the Riverfront Times blog on Feb. 15, along with comment from the paper, and ran in the St. Louis Business Journal on Feb. 19.
We recently received a thoughtful response from Hugh Scott, III, who has been a member of Metro’s Board of Commissioners for nearly five years, commenting on Payne’s op-ed. In the interest of furthering dialogue about important issues like public transit funding, his entire letter appears unedited below:
As even noted anti-tax advocate Glenn Beck acknowledged on his show yesterday, (2/22/10) some taxes are necessary. In the case of public transit, I would maintain that taxes supporting these systems inure to the economic benefit of metropolitan areas. Public transit enables people to commute to jobs and transit centers provide a critical mass of customers for businesses located near them. Not only does Metro employ 2000 St. Louisans but it assists countless thousands of workers to get to jobs in healthcare, retail, manufacturing and distribution. For many of these commuters, no public transit would mean no job.
Show-Me Research Assistant John Payne misses the mark in his article, “Adding New MetroLink Lines Too Costly, Inefficient.” While he tacitly agrees that public transit is important for our community, he advocates opposition to the proposed referendum for a ½ cent sales tax on the April ballot. The focus of his criticism is on the part of the proposal which suggests some the addition of light rail corridors. Extending light rail is however, not the major thrust of the proposal.
Throughout its history, BiState (Metro) has not had sufficient dedicated taxes to support its operations. It has relied on the beneficence of the City of St. Louis and the adjoining Missouri and Illinois counties, the States of Missouri and Illinois, and the Federal government to provide operating subsidies. Some of these entities have been generous over the years. Others have been quite parsimonious. In all cases, awarding of funds is arbitrary and Metro must beg for money from its stakeholders on an annual basis. If Metro is expected to operate in a business-like manner, it must have a stable reliable source of revenue. This, in fact, is what the April 6 ballot proposal is really all about.
When the last tax measure failed in a very close vote in November of 2008, Metro was forced to cut 40% of its bus and train service and 400 staff members. This resulted in the loss of at least 5000 jobs in our community. While half of these cuts were quickly restored due to the receipt of emergency funds from St. Clair County and the State of Missouri, deeper cuts will be necessary if the proposed tax is not approved by the voters. With the approval of the new tax, pre-2009 service will be restored and the current system will be able to operate on a stable financial footing for the first time in memory.
Other short term (1-5 year) priorities include implementation of a bus rapid transit system similar to the “higher speed bus routes” advocated by Payne, adding amenities such as a “smart card” fare system, and beginning planning for more light rail. These programs will be implemented only after the pre 2009 service is in place and only when funds are available. The five year plan does not call for construction of new light rail corridors.
Putting a light rail extension in service will take a minimum of ten years. It will also require large amounts of federal funds in order to build. Metro does not believe that the community should “foot the bill” for any Metrolink expansions without the majority of the funds being provided by the federal government. Instead Metro is asking for funds to begin the planning process so that when federal funds become available for light rail expansion, St. Louis will be in line. It only makes good sense to spend some money on planning. Otherwise, federal money for light rail will go to other cities and St. Louis will be left out.
Payne tries to make a case for increased bus service as opposed to more light rail. He asserts that buses are a better form of transit because they are cheaper and provide more flexible route opportunities. This was precisely the argument made by former BiState CEO, Col. Rudolph Smyser in the 1960’s when he ordered the shutdown of the last of the street car lines in St. Louis.
While it may be argued that buses are superior to light rail from an economic standpoint, flexibility of routes is precisely the problem with buses. Businesses which might prosper by being near a transit stop do not locate near bus stops because a bus stop might easily move to another street or corner. Many non-transit dependent customers will not ride buses because it is often difficult to know where the bus is going. With streetcars, subways and light rail, one need only look at a map showing landmarks or look down the track to know where the car is headed.
In some ways, Metro has successfully mitigated the confusion caused by changing bus routes by creating a hub and spoke system integrating buses and light rail. Thus a person who boards a bus that says “Clayton Station” can expect to travel to the Clayton Metrolink station. Similarly, a passenger who boards our most heavily traveled bus route, Grand Avenue, can be confident the bus will travel north or south on Grand without deviating. In a sense, our increased market share in buses may be in part attributed to our lack of flexibility with routes not the reverse.
In conclusion, Metro has built a world class transit system which integrates bus and rail service quite successfully. While our population density might be low for light rail travel our market share compared to peer group cities is very high. Light rail continues to gain popularity from non-transit dependent riders and nationally, our market share is in the top three cities in our ten city peer group. The April ballot proposal is about preserving this fine system. Our first priority must be to stabilize the existing system. Future planning is always important but it comes further down the list of priorities.