The St. Louis Metrolink Tax
Where Did All the Money
New Tax Still Won't
Achieve 1994 Promises
By Wendell Cox
28 October 1997
Voters in the
city and county of St. Louis are being asked to approve another sales tax
for Metrolink on the November ballot. Some are questioning why a new sales
tax is needed so soon after passing the 1994 tax. Where did the money go?
This is an all too familiar refrain in public transit. In 1977 I was
appointed to the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) by
Mayor Tom Bradley, where I served until 1985. In 1980, we asked the voters
to approve a one-half cent sales tax to build eleven rail lines. The
trouble began. Costs for the light rail Blue Line escalated more than 300
percent, while more money than planned was used to operate the transit
system. So in 1990, went back to the voters for another one-half cent
sales tax, to construct what was promised in 1980. Even after the 1990 tax
increase, Los Angeles officials have had to drastically scale back rail
construction plans. And, total bus and rail ridership is down 25 percent
from bus only ridership in 1985.
Similarly, St. Louis voters were told in 1994 that five rail lines
would be built with the new tax. They were also told that $4.00 in federal
funding would be received for every $1.00 raised by the tax. Now there is
barely enough the money to build only one of the five lines. We are told
that the new tax is necessary because federal funding has been cut back.
In actuality, federal funding for rail construction has increased.
However, there was not the remotest prospect of St. Louis receiving $4.00
for every $1.00 raised in 1994, and the tax promoters knew it. Further,
more money than planned was spent for operations, rather than rail
construction, which caused the St. Louis County Council to suspect
payments to Bi-State at one point. But the 1994 election was not the first
promise broken with respect to Metrolink --- remember that in 1988 the
public was told that no tax increase would be necessary to operate light
rail, but by 1994 Bi-State threatened to close it down unless a new tax
Los Angeles and St. Louis are not the only places that transit promises
have been broken. Dallas has scaled its plans back by more than one-third.
Buffalo promised to operate without a new tax, and like St. Louis
threatened system close down to force adoption of higher taxes.
But this is just the beginning. Recent National Academy of Sciences
research concluded that large transportation projects, such as light rail,
tend to cost much more than planned. This is certainly the experience
across the nation. Portland's second line cost three times its first, and
its third will cost nine times the first.
The 1997 tax will not be sufficient to deliver even the promises of
1994, and major areas of the metropolitan area will be taxed but not
served. Finally, don't be surprised when transit operations consumes much
of the new tax --- Just as certain as cost overruns is the inability of
transit agencies to control operating costs once they are flush with
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