St. Louis transit funding benefits entire state

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The recent cutbacks of transit service in St. Louis are having an impact well beyond the transit riders themselves -- a surprise for many who didn't realize the connection between the economy and a good public transit system.

What many people don't realize is that proper transit funding in St. Louis benefits everyone in the state. A thriving St. Louis regional economy represents well over 45 percent of the entire state's economy, generating tax revenue that supports services across the state such as education and a variety of health and social services.

After years of using temporary fixes to fund the system, Metro's ingenuity and luck ran out this spring when the Federal Transit Administration ruled that stimulus funding could not be used for the operations of transit systems across the U.S.

It's not just St. Louis. Cutbacks are in the works for transit systems in Boston, Chicago, New York and Kansas City. The cuts are coming at a time when transit ridership is at a 50-year high as people rediscover its many benefits including cleaner air, less strain on the household budget and a catalyst for economic development.

With Metro cutting its service by 40 percent, professor Jack Strauss at St. Louis University estimates that 3,400 people in St. Louis area will lose their jobs.

Many workers who relied on the bus to get to jobs are out of luck. The state legislature is considering an infusion of $35 million in cash to restore the reduction in light rail service and bus routes so people can get to their jobs, business owners can have a reliable work force and developers will have confidence in the presence of rail service to continue development near light rail stops that are already on the drawing board.

Transit keeps low-income workers on the job and helps them avoid being saddled with car payments and escalating fuel costs. MetroLink has proved attractive to everyone from Cardinal fans to doctors and nurses at BJC Hospital.

While something of an anathema to Missouri, state funding of transit in states with large metropolitan areas is quite common. For instance, Illinois provides about $35 per capita to its transit systems. Missouri's $1 per capita funding is one of the lowest among states with major urban centers. If Missouri had a program similar to Illinois, all cuts could be restored and a major expansion of MetroLink to all corners of St. Louis started.

Since Missouri first instituted a two-cent gasoline tax in the 1921, Missouri has not had a balanced transportation system. In the 1920s, transit companies were private taxpaying entities. Many of Missouri's villages and towns had streetcar systems. The first road tax that "got Missouri out of the mud" was a pact between urban and rural interests. Farmers got easier access to urban markets and urban dwellers got better access to farm goods. The problem was that over time Missouri's transportation system got out of balance because the state only focused on roads.

Hidden subsidies for trucks and cars such as "free" parking, further distorted the transportation market and led to a loss of not only transit service but also of passenger rail service, which once connected many Missouri communities with each other.

Investments in transit return dividends to the entire population. Since the advent of St. Louis' MetroLink in 1993, ridership is up over 50 percent and development around MetroLink stations totals more than $13 billion. An expanded system would spawn further development. These cuts jeopardize those gains at a time when Metropolitan areas in other states such as Denver, Dallas, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Seattle -- places that Missouri competes with are expanding their rail systems and taking measures to ensure that they operate efficiently.

A good transit system is crucial to the economic health of not only St. Louis, but also the entire state. A $35 million investment will put people back to work and set the stage for the state to develop a true multimodal approach to transportation that serves all of its citizens.

Thomas R. Shrout Jr. is the executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit, a St. Louis-based transit advocacy organization.

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