Where Are The Metro Buses We Paid For? (Part 2)
My last post about the Metro bus system in Saint Louis detailed how Metro’s focus on maintaining low-passenger bus routes reduces resources for popular routes. This post focuses on the actual purchase of buses. News stories about the overcrowding of the popular 70-Grand Ave. route wondered why Metro’s tax increases have not paid for new buses. As a Fox News affiliate put it, “after all, you paid for them.”
It turns out that Saint Louis residents do not, in fact, pay for new buses through local tax increases. When it comes to funding capital expenditures for transit, like new buses, the federal government provides most of the money. In a three-year period around the time of the most recent tax increase, the federal government paid approximately 77 percent of Metro’s capital expenditures, and even 10 percent of operating costs. After the last tax increase allowed Metro to continue service on some routes, Metro did buy 10 new buses. However, a federal grant paid for most of the buses.
If Metro wants new, larger buses for the 70-Grand route without making major changes to the system, the most obvious options are to receive a federal grant or raise taxes further.
This underlines the point that more than 90 percent of local taxes for Metro busses go to the operation of the system and not new vehicles. And unfortunately for Saint Louis area taxpayers, the cost of operating the Metro bus system continues to rise. Over the last 20 years, Metro’s bus fleet has been cut in half, ridership has fallen, and total passenger miles have decreased. However, the cost of operating the bus system has increased at an average of 4 percent per year. In fact, the annual operating cost per available Metro bus seat has risen from $2,869 per seat in 1991 to $9,360 per seat in 2012. This represents a 6 percent increase per year, much higher than inflation and even increases in fuel prices.
In the last decade, Metro has failed to control costs, despite significant federal aid in capital expenditures. Metro therefore required tax increases to maintain the underutilized routes that go to low-population density areas. These factors mean Metro requires higher taxes and more federal dollars to buy larger buses to increase service on the city’s busiest routes.
What Metro needs most of all is greater flexibility to address cost issues and still provide a base level of service to outer areas.