Recently, regional leaders in Saint Louis have gotten into a spat over plans to expand the MetroLink. Saint Louis County has been independently exploring (and spending money exploring) various MetroLink expansion options. However, County Executive Steve Stenger feels this process has been short-circuited, “surreptitiously,” as the city and transit authorities have already applied for federal aid for their preferred “North–South” expansion without getting buy-in from the county. In protest, Stenger issued a harshly worded letter to the FTA and has publicly denounced the project. The Mayor’s office has tried to diffuse Stenger’s criticisms, with one official calling the County Executive’s actions “embarrassing.” However, given Stenger’s opposition, the city needs to confront the fact that funding a MetroLink expansion without the county’s participation is a nonstarter.
To see why this is the case, remember first that building the proposed North–South MetroLink expansion may cost upwards of $2 billion, not including the increased costs of operating the system. That’s a huge price tag, one that the region would likely not consider if not for the possibility of getting federal grants, which can cover as much as 50% of transit infrastructure costs. However, getting these grants is a competitive process, and the County’s vocal opposition could harm (if not destroy) Saint Louis’s chances. No federal dollars would all but guarantee no new MetroLink.
However, let us imagine that the city moves forward over the county’s objections and, despite the disharmony, the federal government agrees to cover half the costs of MetroLink’s expansion. Even then, the city’s ability to go it alone is questionable. The city would still need to cover a billion dollars in capital costs and increased MetroLink operating expenses, requiring a new city-wide sales tax of more than 2 percent. Such an increase would put the city’s total average sales tax above 10 percent, with many areas in the city charging a tax of more than 12 percent on all goods and services. Even if the state legislature would allow a vote on it, Saint Louis’s residents and businesses would likely reject a tax hike of that size.
The other prime option for circumventing County opposition, the use of a transportation development district (TDD), is also unlikely to succeed. Creating a new taxing district near the proposed route could help fund the expansion, but creating a district large enough to raise a billion dollars would be difficult. TDDs, by state law, can charge a maximum of a 1% sales tax and a property tax of 10 cents on each $100 of assessed valuation (imposing the property tax would require a supermajority approval) in the district’s boundaries. To fund a MetroLink expansion, the TDD would have to extend well beyond the city and reach economically productive areas in Saint Louis County, all of which would be far away from the North–South expansion’s route. These areas would be less likely to vote in favor of a high-tax TDD.
Unfortunately for the city, the only logical way to fund a multibillion-dollar MetroLink expansion is the same method used to fund past expansions: sales tax increases in both the city and the entire county, to tune of 0.5%. The city might find Stenger’s opposition embarrassing, but what’s more embarrassing here is that the MetroLink, with its massive expense and low ridership, requires financial support from those who will rarely, if ever, ride. In the end, if the city and transit activists want more rail, they are going to have to start begging the county, as they are now begging the federal government, to get on board.