Where Are The Metro Buses We Paid For?
Local news outlets recently reported about the lack of spaces on buses in Saint Louis, specifically pointing out overcrowding on the 70-Grand Ave. line. Commenters decried the situation, stating that a tax increase three years ago should have handled the issue. One report asked why the last tax increase did not get the city new buses for busy routes, stating “after all, you paid for them.”
But what did Saint Louis area residents pay for? According to data from Metro, they did not pay for more buses on Grand Ave.
As of October 2013, Metro operated 73 bus routes, of which 70-Grand Ave. was the busiest, with 9,256 passengers on an average day. It is also Metro’s best-performing bus route financially, with 80 percent of the operating costs coming from fares (for comparison, fares pay for 27 percent of the Metrolink lines).
To deal with the demand for this route, at peak periods, Metro devoted 12 buses. Those buses make 127 daily trips. But what are those numbers in perspective? Metro runs many other routes as well, some of a magnitude less popular than 70-Grand. In fact, 70-Grand has as many passengers per day as 31 of Metro’s poorer-performing bus routes. The resources designated for those routes? Seventy-eight buses at any peak period and a total of 1,203 daily bus trips. As for money, most of these routes make back less 20 percent of their operating costs in fares and some make less than 5 percent. Those buses need far more financial support than 70-Grand. While 70-Grand requires approximately $2,500 per day in subsidies to cover its operating expenses, the least-frequented 31 routes require a combined $54,000 per day.
Saint Louis area residents did not pay more to improve 70-Grand, they paid higher taxes to operate an entire bus system. While buses are crowded in the high population centers in the city, most of the tax dollars and buses in the Metro system are needed to maintain underutilized service in Saint Louis and St. Clair Counties. The bright yellow lines represent those low-passenger routes on the map below.
Maintaining those routes, not pushing more buses onto high demand routes (in blue), was the main purpose of the tax increase.
If Saint Louis area residents want to improve service for crowded bus routes without raising taxes further, they need to re-think Metro’s priorities. Metro’s policy to maintain underutilized routes throughout the Saint Louis region hampers its ability to provide frequent service on high-demand routes.
To be fair, those residents of underutilized transit areas in Saint Louis County pay just as much in taxes to support Metro as city residents do. (St. Clair County funds transit differently, so we will leave them aside for now.) I understand the need to keep offering some transit services to areas that do not use it very much, but Metro needs far greater flexibility to offer that service in a more cost-effective way. More on that to come.