The St. Louis Metrolink Tax
Where Did All the Money Go?
New Tax Still Won't Achieve 1994 Promises
By Wendell Cox
28 October 1997
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 was provided.
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 money.