CLAYTON — St. Louis County taxpayers are being asked to take on a larger share of funding for Bi-State Development at a time when the operator of the Metro transit agency is cutting back service in the county.
That was the message from St. Louis County Executive Sam Page in a letter dated Friday to the County Council as it tackles the annual question of how much public money to invest in the struggling transit agency.
While not outright criticizing Bi-State’s request, nor calling on the council to reduce or reject it, Page’s letter points to the county’s long-touchy relationship with the transit agency over which its only leverage is funding. Bi-State is governed by a regional board of commissioners despite getting half its money from St. Louis County.
The letter noted that Bi-State had asked the county for $164.3 million to operate Metro for the year that started July 1. That would be about a 4.5% increase from last year’s contribution to the system. St. Louis County contributes by far the biggest share of any area government.
Page wrote that “according to our analysis, the budget proposed by (Bi-State) increases the proportion of its funding that comes from the County. At the same time, Bi-State has announced plans to significantly reduce services in the County, while making relatively slight reductions in services in other areas of the region.”
Page wrote that his comments were intended “to ensure the council is informed of material information that may impact its decision” on the budget request.
An internal analysis prepared by members of Page’s staff, shared with the Post-Dispatch, indicates growing concern at the county’s increased cost while both ridership and the total miles served are each expected to decline next year by 4%. The analysis said it was a “problem that must be addressed at some point.”
Metro is in transition after putting in place this summer a plan to remove 370 bus stops. On Sept. 30, a “reimagined” Metro will see a more significant restructuring of routes and schedules.
The change is also occurring during contract negotiations with drivers. On Monday, an “unusually high number” of Metro bus drivers either called out from work or declined to pick up extra shifts, resulting in a shortage of available bus routes. The Redbird Express, which shuttles Cardinals fans to the Busch Stadium, was cancelled because of drivers calling off work.
Bi-State CEO and President Taulby Roach said on Monday that the budget request “contemplates a system redesign” that had not been undertaken since the 1990s. He said some sections of the county will see more frequent service.
“We are open to hearing their critiques and criticisms” of the reconfigured system, he said. “I realize we are not where they want us to be but what I want them to see is that we are headed in the right direction.”
And he said that the budget request held the line on Metro’s operating expenses and represented $20 million in cost cutting from a budget that had been drawn up before his appointment in November.
“I reduced 77 positions,” he said. “Some were unfilled and some were layoffs. I made 10 layoffs out of my executive office. … We needed to commit to our partners that we were getting serious about the trajectory of our operating expenses over time.”
The County Council is not likely to vote on the Bi-State budget appropriation for several weeks.
Its presiding officer, Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, has promised multiple hearings for a “deep dive” into the budget request.