Report: St. Louis should focus on bus service, not spend $850M for light rail

(The Center Square) – Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build five miles of light rail on streets, St. Louis’ public transit authority should improve its bus service, according to a report.

The report, “Is St. Louis Transit Built for the 2020s or the 1910s?” was written by Randal O’Toole, an economist who specializes in transportation policy, for the Show-Me Institute. O’Toole’s 32-page report found total ridership for buses and MetroLink, St. Louis’ light-rail system, was lower in 2019 than in 1993, the year before the first light-rail line opened.

“Rail transit made sense in the 1910s when hardly anybody owned automobiles and most jobs were located downtown,” O’Toole said in an interview with The Center Square. “Most people lived in dense residential areas outside of downtown.”

O’Toole said St. Louis and other cities built light-rail systems during the last few decades because federal money was available for construction. The recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will authorize $3 billion annually for new and expanded rapid rail, commuter rail, light rail, streetcars, bus rapid transit and ferries.

St. Louis’ Bi-State Development, the transit agency, projects a first expansion phase will cost $850 million.

“So they built all this light rail, they lost riders and now they want to build more,” O’Toole said. “And the scary thing is the new light rail is going to run in the streets. The existing light rail has its own right of way and is fairly safe.”

O’Toole’s research found bus rapid transit and express buses are lower in cost, higher in capacity and are inherently more flexible to operate. He also found MetroLink’s focus on downtown doesn’t serve suburban communities where residences and job locations are spread out.

The taxes used to build and operate light rail are regressive and low-income earners pay a larger portion of their wages for the tax compared to higher-income earners, according to O’Toole.

“About 95% of low-income people drive, so they don’t take transit to work,” O’Toole said. “If less than 5% are taking transit, then you’re going to have a regressive tax to pay for subsidizing transit. We’re making the 95% who don’t take transit pay for transit. It ends up hurting low-income people more than it helps them.”

O’Toole also cautioned Missourians to be aware of proposed expansion of Amtrak. The Missouri Department of Transportation will ask Republican Gov. Mike Parson for $76 million in federal funds to add another daily round-trip line between St. Louis and Kansas City, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

“Congress gave Amtrak $60 billion and a lot is for expanding service,” O’Toole said. “But it will only be expanded in states where legislatures get suckered into promising to support the operating costs of the trains. We have buses just about everywhere Amtrak wants to go and they don’t require government subsidies. They’re faster and the fares are lower.”

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