Make Metro Sustainable, not House Poor
Planners are pushing for a new multibillion-dollar North-South MetroLink line in Saint Louis. While light rail expansion would increase mobility in the city (unlike some other “transportation” modes), the high capital costs of expanded rail imperil Metro’s ability to provide flexible and effective transit over the long term.
Transit spending, and especially rail transit like MetroLink, skews toward capital-intensive projects that make agencies “house poor”—that is, even if an agency can get most of the start-up costs of a transit project paid out of federal funds, that agency still may not have much money to pay for a project’s predictable long-term costs. That’s relevant to Saint Louis, where about 30 percent of the region’s transit funding comes from federal grants that usually require the the expansion of transit service.
Local governments don’t usually take this longer view on transit proposals; instead, projects are sold to residents based on their immediate local cost, with little consideration to how the city or agency will pay for the system’s eventual maintenance and reconstruction. This gap in logic on the part of many planners is a very real concern for taxpayers and transit riders alike; Boston’s transit agency has essentially bankrupted itself through rail expansion, and Chicago will need $36 billion to repair its transit system in the next decade.
Saint Louis is hardly different. Its MetroLink rail system cost more than a billion dollars to build, but MetroLink costs more than $80 million to operate each year, just as it is. This revolving pricetag, paired with MetroLink’s paltry fare take of $20 million per year, helps to explain why Metro has never replaced a MetroLink car: the agency simply doesn’t have the money for it. Indeed, MetroLink’s 83 vehicles are now more than 15 years old, on average. Even building a new station on the existing line had to be entirely funded by the federal government. Expanding the rail system—as Saint Louis planners want to do with the North-South MetroLink line—will only exacerbate the system’s substantial, and predictable, long-term liabilities without also solving the problem of reliably paying for either existing or proposed rail maintenance and improvement.
Saint Louis planners should take into account the full costs of the projects being proposed and look toward increasing efficiency. Yes, a new MetroLink line may be an exciting possibility for many Saint Louisans, but if the entire Metro system is to have solid financial footing in the future, superficially attractive prestige projects like the North-South MetroLink line may need to defer to practical, efficient, and effective improvements to the region’s bus system.