CLAYTON — Bi-State Development is asking St. Louis County to sign off on a major refinancing that it says could provide some $20 million for new public safety measures on MetroLink.
That money could help pay for upgrades in security cameras, reconfiguration of MetroLink stations, fencing and other improvements to make the light-rail system more secure for passengers, said Taulby Roach, Bi-State president and CEO.
Bi-State’s request comes at the same time the St. Louis County Council looks to assert more oversight of an agency that installed a new leader in January following years of public feuding with former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.
But County Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, said he’s willing to consider the refinancing separately from Bi-State’s annual budget request. The budget, he said, needs a “deeper dive.”
Trakas, who serves as the council’s presiding officer, said Bi-State’s refunding, on the other hand, should be able to move forward before Oct. 1 so Bi-State can take advantage of low long-term interest rates.
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page has endorsed the move. The city of St. Louis and Bi-State’s board have also approved the measure.
Roach said the refunding would save $40 million in today’s dollars. Half would be allocated as immediate capital for safety upgrades, some of which were called for in a report released earlier this year from New York-based WSP USA Inc. The savings would have to go to capital projects because the sales taxes that fund the bonds were passed to pay for new projects, rather than employees and operations.
“There are several items on the study list that I knew would cost some capital,” Roach said. “It’s my job to figure out how to fund those, and this is one way that I see it getting done.”
Among the safety items are new and better security cameras, including a system so footage can be monitored by police and security personnel in real time from remote locations.
“Right now the camera systems on the MetroLink, they are good, but we have to pull the tapes on them, so it’s old technology,” Roach said.
Other recommendations call for reconfiguring MetroLink stations to limit points of access so that police can better monitor passengers and enforce fare violations. Cameras can also be trained on single points of entry.
Several stations have already looked at such designs under a pilot program that began last year. Some money could pay for fencing and other immediate changes while MetroLink looks at more comprehensive redesigns and seeks grants and other funding to supplement those projects.
Roach said he’s happy to give the council oversight on those funds.
“What I’ve been contemplating with discussions with the county is dedicating the $20 million and putting it aside in a capital account in which the county would provide oversight and authorize any expenditure of that money, and that’s a reasonable oversight function in my mind,” he said.
Meanwhile, Roach, who took over in January from longtime Bi-State CEO John Nations, will have to convince a skeptical Trakas and other council members that he’s not beholden to Stenger or other political leaders if he hopes to win the agency’s largest local government appropriation, worth around $150 million a year.
Roach replaced a Bi-State director who often clashed with Stenger and his ally, former St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, over MetroLink policing. Elected leaders from the city, county and St. Clair County were said to have had a hand in his selection, even though Bi-State’s board is supposed to pick its CEO.
But Roach is also a veteran transit consultant who worked on the MetroLink expansion and whose father, former St. Louis Alderman John Roach, was a key player in MetroLink’s establishment. He had worked for the St. Clair County Transit District since 2002. The district contracts with Bi-State/Metro to provide bus service there and oversees other activities.
Trakas mentioned elected leaders’ involvement in Roach’s selection in a letter he sent to him in June.
“These circumstances cause me great concern as to the pressure you may be under as you lead Bi-State,” Trakas wrote. “… I believe you should anticipate that the oversight concerns of St. Louis County will be at the highest level to ensure the public’s demand for accountability is met to the fullest extent.”
Trakas has asked for quarterly reports of all Bi-State contracts, and Roach already responded by sending the council a list of several canceled consulting contracts and executive staff layoffs from his office that will save over $1.1 million annually.
Five consulting and lobbying contracts were canceled, including ones held by Republican public relations consultant Paul Zemitzsch’s Sequel LLC, Jefferson City lobbyist Kathryn Harness and GOP consultant James Harris, who has served as an adviser to Gov. Mike Parson.
Still retaining consulting contracts are Lou Hamilton, who is close to Mayor Lyda Krewson, and the firm of former Metro East Congressman Jerry Costello, who was known for winning transportation funding for his district when he was in Washington. Roach also added one other firm, Chris Stone’s EMS Midwest in Springfield, Illinois, which Roach credited in helping Bi-State win a state appropriation to expand MetroLink to MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah.
Roach said lobbying contracts have to be scrutinized and he’s “quite comfortable” now with his current lineup of consultants.
He pointed to 77 total layoffs in Bi-State’s management — not drivers or operators — and a resulting request for St. Louis County appropriations that’s $19.5 million less than the year before.
“The budget that was in place for 2020 was simply too high given the projections,” he said. “I was hired to gain the confidence and stabilize Metro and simply move it in a new direction that is more in line with what our policymakers’ request is, so I challenged my staff to rewrite that budget, which they did.”
Trakas said the information Bi-State provided is a “good start.” Still, while that request may be lower compared to last year, it’s not lower compared to five or more years ago.
“The idea that the council is going to rubber stamp an exorbitant number, maybe three years ago, but not anymore,” he said.
Jeremy Kohler of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.