Should St. Louis Make Mass Transit Free?

346519139_4af4e316de_m.jpgPhoto by klabusta via Flickr.

Like so many systems around the country, St. Louis’s Metro is facing a devastating budget crisis. And yet St. Louis Urban Workshop, one of the newer members of the Streetsblog Network, is adding its voice to a highly counterintuitive chorus of people who are calling not for fare increases to help fund the systems — but for eliminating the farebox altogether. Some have suggested that free mass transit be seen as a stimulus measure. Even MarketWatch, part of the Wall Street Journal’s digital network, has run an editorial in favor of making mass transit free, saying, "This is not as far-fetched as it looks."

So how would St. Louis replace the 20 percent of revenues the system gets from fares? here’s what St. Louis Urban Workshop suggests:

The region could charge employers (businesses, government offices, universities, co-ops, etc.) $1 per employee every day that he or she travels to the workplace. This works out to a one-time "wage increase" of 12.5¢ per hour. That’s not very much. If regional employers would commit to mass transit in the mode of Washington University and fully subsidize employee travel we would be there.

The region could also implement a 1% sales tax to fund mass transit. We could
redistribute spending on roads. We could also end the wasteful use of TIF for retail development, a practice that distorts commercial development and produces zero net gain for the St. Louis MSA (report here).
We should also ensure that the system is useful and require retail developments to make accommodations for mass transit (bus turnaround/stop, walking connections to Metrolink, etc.) or pay a fee to build accommodations elsewhere.

Free-transit plans have come up before in New York and other places. Is there any real prospect of their implementation? 

Elsewhere around the network, the National Journal opens a thread on what role public-private partnerships might play in the future of the American transportation system; Twin Cities Streets for People reports on a drop in crime near a new greenway in Minneapolis; and Trains for America digs into the reasons for an improvement in Amtrak’s on-time performance.

  • Free-transit plans have come up before in New York and other places. Is there any real prospect of their implementation?

    Apparently not, if it requires congestion pricing, bridge tolls, or any other revenue source that opponents can twist into some form of class warfare like they have done in the past. And especially not in NYC where the fare covers a lot more than just 20% of operating costs.

  • John

    MetroLink is so poorly managed in St Louis that even a small sales tax increase can’t get voter approval. Free transportation on Metro? Food should be free too, it is more important! By the way most riders ride free in the Lou because of the lack of enforcement and WashU has cut an extremely favorable deal with Metro so all of its employees and students can ride for free already.

    Come on, let’s get real, highly subsidized forms of travel must be ended asap. That means electronic tolls on all highways, congestion pricing, fair value accounting for real estate taxes on parking lots, EMS fees, higher federal/state gas taxes, etc. then perhaps the public will wake up and see the facts. Only then will there be public demand for a more logical and fairer government policies in regards to our transportation choices.

  • Glenn

    Mass transit has to cost something. However, it doesn’t have to cost the same to all riders. No two people on an airplane pay the same price, why should that be true for mass transit. Same for colleges.

    An alternative might be greatly expanding the reduced fare programs to include all children below 18, all students (up to 25), all folks on welfare, etc.

    But I still think mass transit should cost something to prevent chronic overcrowding and make people expect more of their mass transit experience.

    Think about it – if you don’t pay for something, it’s hard to argue that you’re not getting your money’s worth.

  • Robin

    When are these people going to get that its not about making transit cheaper—but making driving more expensive. If transit were fully funded and fuel and road construction, not too mention car purchases, manufacturing, and the other myriad of auto-centric policies were not subsidizing car driving, then the choice would be simple. Don’t make transit free—make car drivers pay their actual costs.

  • The best transportation is less transportation: build neighborhoods so more trips are on foot or on bicycle, and build cities so commutes are shorter.

    We subsidize the most expensive forms of transportation, with huge subsidies to driving and smaller subsidies to transit. As a result, people travel longer distances and ignore the cheapest form of transportation, walking.

    I agree with all the comments that say we should be charging the full cost to the automobile, so people travel less, rather than giving even larger subsidies to transportation.

  • John – you simply don’t know what you’re talking about. If you want to find poor management look at the Missouri Department of Transportation. Is it wasteful to spend $300M on a bridge that fewer than 5% of area residents will ever use? Yes – that’s poor management.

    Most riders do not ride free in St. Louis. Enforcement is very stringent. I ride Metrolink 10x a week and am checked at least every other ride. WU has “cut a good deal” – I believe they pay $1/boarding. If just a few more large employers would do so everyone could ride for free.

    I agree in some respects with your distaste for subsidized travel. However, cul-de-sacs, country roads and highways are much, much, MUCH more subsidized than mass transit. As soon as a $5,000 fee is levied on every single home existing on a cul-de-sac and each home and business located in a suburban location in order to pay the true cost of road building and maintenance, you can take your mass transit subsidy.

    The result? Riding mass transit will cost a small fraction of what it will cost to live in the suburbs. As long as that lifestyle is heavily subsidized I will argue that mass transit deserves a much larger piece of the pie – AND with just a little more mass transit can fulfill its roll of greatly reducing traffic congestion and pollution and help the economy by providing transportation options to people of all socio-economic levels.

    MetroLink is so poorly managed in St Louis that even a small sales tax increase can’t get voter approval. Free transportation on Metro? Food should be free too, it is more important! By the way most riders ride free in the Lou because of the lack of enforcement and WashU has cut an extremely favorable deal with Metro so all of its employees and students can ride for free already.

    Come on, let’s get real, highly subsidized forms of travel must be ended asap. That means electronic tolls on all highways, congestion pricing, fair value accounting for real estate taxes on parking lots, EMS fees, higher federal/state gas taxes, etc. then perhaps the public will wake up and see the facts. Only then will there be public demand for a more logical and fairer government policies in regards to our transportation choices.

  • John

    Sorry Alex I do know what I’m talking about. Metro is a poorly run organization and MoDOT is a disaster. So what? Does that give Metro a free ride? As the former leader of Metro stated: “The only people I really care about that have any input with me are my 10 commissioners that hired me, and I care what Wall Street thinks about me, and I care what my headhunters care about in the case I have to go someplace else. And other than that, I just don’t care.”

    But that is just the tip of the iceberg Alex, you’re new to the Lou and have much to learn. Quoting misleading data though is not a good place to start. Metro has much to learn in developing an efficient mass transit system. But handing out free passes to riders or drivers in no way gets us to smarter solutions.

  • Alex

    In all due respect, the person you quote is no longer at Metro. At the moment funding is a fight between more and larger roads and mass transit – MODOT then is a suitable issue. If you take exception to “misleading data” then please correct it. Please add your knowledgeable input. Lastly, saying that someone is “new to the Lou and (has) much to learn” is idiotic. Are you saying that only good ideas and clear thinking can come from those who have been living somewhere for X number of years – please inform me as to how many years that is so that I may look forward to having my ideas count with people such as yourself. Alternatively, please let me know if there might be a test I can take to demonstrate that I am “learned.”

  • John

    WashU has something called “U-Pass”, an unlimited pass for Metro buses and trains given to full-time students and staff. This program supplied approximately 17,000 passes in the first year. This cost WashU $2.2 million, which AVC Hoffner insisted was not a “special deal” for WashU.

    Until the latest increases, the average Metro user must pay $60 for a monthly pass while WashU pays only $11. For a daily user who has to pay $4.50 for a full day use, the $0.35 paid by WashU seems very special. Bragging about buying $12.2 million of Metro passes for $2.2 million seems fair to transit board members (most still there)? Of course the students and employees get these public assets tax free, nothing special about that, is there Alex?

  • Alex

    ^ If more businesses would do what Washington University has done, Metro would not have a funding problem. So WU pays Metro $2.2M. If we could “find” $40M Metro wouldn’t have a funding gap. Don’t you think that if other major universities and corporations did the same as WU that we could get there. WU cut a very sweet deal for sure. I do think they got a special deal. Maybe I’m missing your point.

  • Besides my beef with anyone who calls it “the Lou” (akin to the annoyance some New Yorkers feel when tourists call their city “the Big Apple”), I think that the answer to this question should be a hearty yes. St. Louis has been a car-centric suburb for the twenty-odd years that I lived there and viewed firsthand the underfunded transit system alongside gross displays of unnecessary overspending elsewhere (Edward Jones Dome, Busch Stadium, etc). The Kheel-Komanoff plan in New York, which is linked to in this article, is flat-out brilliant.

    We’re all missing the point. Maybe we can’t get it completely for free–but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything in our power to try. I completely agree with congestion pricing, tolls, etc. I also think that if businesses were generous enough to do what Wash U does, we’re on the next (fuel-efficient) bus to a greater St. Louis. Do whatever works. Do both.

    Sure, you can go for a walk around your subdivision, but try asking you average born-and-bred to try and get to the city–or anywhere–without a car, even if it is less than fifteen miles. Interstates, highways, rampant speeding, poor sidewalks, the works. I believe citizens will be a lot more likely to accept a small tax increase if the words “free mass transit” were in the same sentence. The community needs to do its citizens a favor and relieve some of their economic burden (especially the lower class who cannot afford cars) by giving them a much-needed and more improved car-free option. It will allow those living near the city access to more jobs, and those in the suburbs will have better access to the metropolitan area, allowing it to grow to its potential.

  • John: The current Wash U contract for a universal pass costs Washington University approximately $1.08 per boarding. For example, if you ride from North Hanley to CWE Station, Metro gets $1.08 cents. If a Wash U employee rides from North Hanley and transfers to the Blue ine, Metro obtains $2.16 cents. If a person rides a bus to North Hanley to Wash U to the Gold Line, (4 boardings) Metro obtains $4.32 cents in revenue. Compare that to the average revenue per boarding for the overall system. Prior to the January fare increase, the average revenue per boarding was 87 cents. With the fare increase, it would certainly increase.

    The universal pass charges Wash U a rate equivalent to a regular monthly pass, if the passes were sold to those who actually use the passes. All Wash U employees and Students do not use the Metro pass. Before the Universal pass, total Wash U revenue from monthly passes was approximately $350,000 annually. Today Metro collects approximately $2.2 million.

    Also not understood is the fact that Metro, before this recent cut, restructured its bus routes to take advantage of the new rail line and to have the remaining routes service the Wash U-CWE area served the predominant Origin Destinations within the neighborhood. Our research of this area showed that the majority of OD trip were focused either to the Wash U Danforth Campus or the Med School area. The bus network prior to the Blue LIne startup was primarily radially focused on downtown or Clayton. Local neighborhood trips were not designed to permit these neighborhood oriented trips. The restructed bus system post Cross County reduced Metro expenses. Our farebox revenue to Wash U increased to the point where the average fare per boarding was higher than any other fare media. (It was the same rate per boarding offered to SWIC and UMSL.)

    If that is poor management in your mind, fine I probably won’t persuade you differently.

    The most common example of Metro “mismanagement” was the failure to carefully supervise the Cross County project supposedly causing the cost overrun. The other example was the decision of our previous CEO and Board to pursue the lawsuit which ended in failure. Salci new this was a high stakes strategy for which he was fired along with several other people responsible for that decision.

    Another example (in my opinion of stakeholder and Metro board mismanagement) goes back to 1994 when the original prop m passed in both the city and County. This tax was proposed to fund the Cross County expansion, but by 1998, Metro informed its county and city Stakeholders that its funding could not support the construction and operation of the new line as well as cover inflationary growth in the existing system when Federal Funds were phased out. That triggered the 1998 attempt to pass an additional 1/4 cent tax to cover operations. Possible mismanagement was the decision by Metro and our various funding partners to build CC without any federal funds because Metro was already being funded through 2003 to build the Illinois extension. At numerous times between 1998 and 2006, Metro informed its funding partners that MEtro could not support the new operation without new funding. Metro’s board could have refused to move the project forward, but that was in direct opposition to the direction of the City and County. Can’t do much about that decision and in hindsight, it was a critical decision. However, Metro would have faced this crisis even without even if it did not build the Cross County would have been a smaller crisis, but probably $35 million shortfall rather than a $50 million shortfall. Without pursing the line, some felt we would have been subject to a taxpayer suit since the 1994 promised more Metrolink. Any remember, not one cent in sales tax goes to Metro except through an annual appropriation of the St. Louis City and St.Louis County Boards of alderman or County Council. Their direction was to move forward.

    While the reasons for the overruns are not solely the result of “mismanagement”, Metro’s overall management of its resources does not meet the definition of “mismanagement in my mind. Between 1980 and 1998, Metro lost $24 million in annual operating assistance. In 2001-2003, Metro lost $2.4 million in State operating assistance. Between 1998 and 2007 St. Louis City and St. Louis County sales tax revenue barely 1% each year..well below any common rate of inflation. In these years, Metro managed its budget. There were some service cuts and fares were increased no fewer than 5 times. Metro privatized cleaning and numerous other functions. Metro implemented a nationally recognized maintenance system which resulted in a miles between road failures that is among the best in the nation. In 2003-2007, subsidy per boarding declined four years in a row (or at least three years). Bus On time performance increased from 70% in 2001 to around 93 % in 2008. (that’s good in this industry). Rail reliability, rail ridership and bus ridership increased steadily from 2004 though 2008.

    There is no way Metro is perfect. It is not. But by the measures used traditionally in the industry, it is far from poorly managed.

    In May 2008, St. Louis County announced it was going to cut Metro’s appropriation by $10 miilion to reallocate 1/2 cent funds to Highways. This year, sale tax, due to the recession, will decline again.

    In my opinion Metro has effectively and professionally managed its public resources, but the combined effect of in sufficient revenue growth and absolute cuts in subsidies reached to point where Metro could no longer “manage” its budget with new revenue. MEtro tried this in 1998, but failed on 1/4 cent Prop M tax. The county’s initiative failed again in Nov. 2008.

    Today Metro is undergoing a major change in its management. Many higher paid employees are retiring or have left. This, while problematic in the short term, is how a company can “reduce” its labor and benefit costs. Reportedly Metro is making transformational changes in its benefit programs…common now by many of the private businesses across this county. I don’t see this a “mismanagement.” Its painful, and its a strategic move to position the agency to have a lower cost structure.

    John, I apologize for not highlighting all of the facts as I remember them. There isn’t space. I get frustrated at the easily asserted claim of “mismanagement, since most people don’t fully document their claim. If you can do it, you should. However there are many facts that don’t support that assertion when you investigate the topic.

  • Jenniferwhatnot

    Oh Todd, how we miss you. Hope you’re enjoying the weather down there.

  • Jenniferwhatnot

    To discuss the topic at hand (“free” transit in St. Louis), slapping the label “free” on anything is going to be misleading. Free transit would be like free insurance – it’s going to cost, it’s just not going to come directly out of your pocket. But finding new ways to fund transit, and having a better overall transportation plan that accounts for ALL forms of transportation, not just roads, would surely be a step in the right direction.

  • John

    Todd, sorry but I don’t have the time you have to write long essays. The case for mismanagement is obvious and it’s good that Metro finally realized it couldn’t afford to subsidize WashU so dramatically.

    The Extension did cause Metro to change its bus routes and this has dramatically, for the worse, not the better. Just one example: my wife who lives just four miles from work would like to use Metro but it takes 50 minutes on Metro versus 20 minutes on her bike. A bus stop is now within two blocks of a straight line route on Clayton Rd but the bus she needs to catch is on Brentwood Blvd over a mile away. The routes were changed to favor WashU students and not everyday commuters around Clayton.

    Originally the Metro Extension was to have a cycling-walking-jogging path next to it. I still have the maps of these designs but I suppose Metro eliminated this important infrastructure when it decided to make stations closer together (too close). The bottom line is that traveling the Extension takes longer than cycling the same distance and Metro couldn’t afford more bad PR.

    Don’t forget that Metro got the right-of-way for nothing but still spent over $80 million/mile for the Extension. The spread between longer term operating expenses and revenues will rise over time. In addition, neighbors which were once strong supporters have now turned against Metro and any additional funding. As you may know, Metro depends on the honor system and therefore collecting on WashU transfers is largely irrelevant.

    I’m a big fan of mass transit as I rode it daily in another city for 25 years. Metro in St Louis is a dismal failure due to mismanagement. Metro is doing a good job of alienating supporters though. The main point though was about supporting “free Metro”. The idea is absurd at best.

  • Jenniferwhatnot

    Sorry, John, but you are very, very misinformed. You and Todd are discussing the Cross County alignment which most certainly was not acquired for free. The landowners who received payments for their property that Metro bought through eminent domain would be very surprised to hear that they had given the land away. In fairness, I’m sure you’re thinking about the original (Phase 1 – East St Louis to Lambert) alignment which was built on railroad corridor that the City of St. Louis owned and donated to the project to use as the “local match” portion of the funding. But the right-of-way for Cross County was certainly not free. Real estate expenses, particularly relocation of utilities, was one of the costs that caused the original budget figures to escalate on the Cross County project (the original conceptual design & budget from East West Gateway Council of Governments anticipated something less than 50 utilities to relocate; in reality, when the project was done, there were hundreds of utility relocations, each of which of course cost money).

    I don’t know what Metro could do to please neighbors on top of what it already did, but the point is that every change to the system is extra expense added on top. At some point you have to stop adding and actually build something. Bike trails or jogging paths along MetroLink alignment are not practical or safe; there would have to be grade separation or barriers to ensure safety (again adding to costs). Since much of the alignment was buried through Clayton, I’m not sure what you’d do for bike trails there – build bike trail tunnels? Yeah, that would be a real cheap solution. It would be nice if the streets in Clayton had bike lanes, but that’s up to the city and county road planners, not Metro. Contrary to popular criticism, Metro does not control the world.

    Your main objection seems to be to one route change that disfavors your wife. That’s unfortunate but she works four miles from home and can bike to work – she’s got options that others don’t have. When the system was redesigned to feed into the train system and take advantage of the light rail component, some people surely found that they benefitted more under the old routes. That doesn’t make the reasons for the changes wrong, or the changes bad for the system overall. Any change to a complex system is going to make some people mad and others happy. Public works are always a give-take prospect.

    Not to put words in his mouth, but I bet what Todd was saying is that charging Metro with “mismanagement” isn’t much of an argument. It’s a statement of belief, but there’s no specifics in there. In contrast, he gave a lot of very specific factual information regarding the increase in revenue Metro receives because of the changes to the Wash U student pass program. That was in direct response to your criticism of the pass program. It’s not your fault that you didn’t have the specific figures previously; how could you? But now you do and insist that Metro is still “mismanaged.” Do you see how hard it is to respond to such a general statement? In the end, you’re just saying you don’t think Metro’s doing a good job. That’s fine to hold that opinion but it’s not a very useful argument, is all.

  • John, I don’t have time to respond writing long responses either. Notice it got posted 12:34 am on April 7th and this one will get posted after 10:00 pm. This is my work done on my own time when I should be sleeping.

    I was interested in your comments on Wash U. Tom Sullivan has made the same assertions, but he never wanted to even listen to a different perspective. Hopefully you will think about this particular program with an open mind. I wanted to share some of the information that might be inconsistent with your claims regarding Washington University and Metro’s U-Pass. It is definitely appropriate to criticize Metro management, but I feel that you would be much more effective in the debate if you had more the information.

    One other point you might want to consider regarding the UPass. The first UPass was started with UMSL shortly after 1994 when the first Metrolink was started. When I came to Metro in 2001, it determined that the average revenue per boarding on the UMSL U-Pass was around 20 cents. We started a variation of the UPass with SWIC where it was initially priced at 50 cents per boarding. I knew in 2001, that Wash U was a potentially very large customer when the blue line was completed. I felt that we couldn’t really justify offering service to UMSL at 20 cents, Swic at 50 cents, and Wash U something else. It was our option that we needed a consistent, transparent method of pricing universal passes.

    My goal was to increase the revenue from the UPass programs so that total revenue per boarding (the most effective measure of usage) was equal to or greater that the average revenue collected from non UPass fare media.

    Salci approved this change. It was painful. UMSL dropped out of the program because they felt they couldn’t agree to increase their costs from $60,000 annually to over $500,000 as was proposed. SWIC did agree to the transition and their costs increased from roughly $150,000 annually to around $400,000 (I recollect). Wash U was not a Upass participate and initially felt our estimated cost for the Upass program would be $1.7 million. Wash U felt it wouldn’t exceed $900,000.

    We agreed to conduct detailed counts and surveys of Wash U usage in the first year. Boardings on the entire system (bus and rail) exceeded 2 million boardings and was considered one of the best benefits offered by Wash to its employees. It certainly appears that the UPass, as implemented in 2006 was better management than the same program when UMSL paid 20 cents per boarding. I guess that would really mismanagement.

    Some people think we should price the Upass program by multiplying the $68 monthly bus pass times the number of employees. If we could get every single person in the St. Louis Metropolitan area to pay $68 per month, our total revenue would be over $150 million. Unfortunately, 100 % of the public does not use transit. As such we used the UPass program, like over 60 other transit systems in the US, to spread the cost of the likely users of transit at regular fares over all employees. This puts a pass in everyones hands, but you still don’t get all of those individuals to use the system. Its an effective marketing program and you attract more riders than you would have had if you didn’t have the program.

    So any way John, I certainly respect your perspectives and willingness to debate the issue. I know myself that I sometimes think I have figured out an issue, but upon more research and with more information, I learn that many of my strongly felt beliefs do bear up to the research. That goes two ways, which is why I read these blogs. You must always test your beliefs against the facts. Nevertheless, based upon the data I have, the Upass program is not subsidizing Wash U employees more than the general rider as measured by revenue per boarding.

  • Don’t forget an additional benefit of mass transit – reducing deaths from drunk driving and other traffic accidents. I wrote a blog post about it and an Op-Ed:

    Why isn’t anyone talking about this?


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