St. Louis County Executive Sam Page wants to know why Bi-State Development is asking county taxpayers for a bigger proportion of funding even as the Metro transit system it operates is reducing bus service in the county. It’s a good question, and one that needs a specific answer before the first extra dime is handed over.
The regional bus and light-rail system has had its share of problems over the years. Crime on MetroLink trains has fed an exaggerated but stubborn public perception of danger that has been partly blamed for a 20% drop in ridership across the whole system in recent years. That has likely been aggravated by highly publicized squabbles among the different public entities that share responsibility for securing the trains.
Recent service cutbacks on the bus system also haven’t helped. They resulted from drivers calling off work and refusing overtime shifts — a situation that looks an awful lot like a work slowdown as contract negotiations drag on.
Add to that the source of so many of the St. Louis region’s problems: stagnant population growth. Public transit is at base a numbers game, and the numbers here make it a challenge even to maintain a system, let alone expand it, as Metro is trying to do.
All of which explains why Metro buses have been cutting back service in the short term while the system as a whole needs more funding. But it doesn’t explain why an outsized portion of that increase should come from St. Louis County — just one of the patchwork of sources that fund the system, including St. Louis city and St. Clair County in Illinois — even as St. Louis County gets hit with bigger bus-service cuts than the rest of the system.
As the Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Kohler reported this week, Page called attention to that disconnect in a recent letter to the County Council. The letter notes that Bi-State has asked the county for $163.3 million for the fiscal year that started July 1, about a 4.5% increase from last year.
A county analysis found that request would increase the proportion of Bi-State funding being paid by the county — which already provides half its budget. “At the same time,” Page wrote, “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.”
Bi-State’s chief executive and president, Taulby Roach, says the budget request is part of the already-announced major system redesign that will ultimately mean more frequent bus service to parts of the county. Whether that fully justifies shifting such a significant burden of the cost to one partner in the system is something the County Council needs to examine, in detail, before county taxpayers shell out more for what is, at the moment, less.