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Metro searches for 'congestion and air quality' money to reduce planned cuts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 24, 2009 - Metro is hoping funds from a source little known to the public -- the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program -- might spare the St. Louis region some of the massive cuts the agency has promised for next month.

However, Les Sterman, executive director of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, which disperses the money locally, has his doubts.

If it can, it will take "a pretty complex shell game to free it up again so we can use it for Metro," he said.

"It's essentially spent," Sterman said of the CMAQ funds. "We've committed it to projects. Whether those sponsors have spent the money yet or not, we don't know. We've got to find out."

Each year, the area gets CMAQ funds for projects to reduce certain "air pollutants regulated from transportation-related sources." East-West Gateway allocated CMAQ funds to local governments to coordinate traffic signals for the Interstate 64 reconstruction, Sterman said.

Metro has received CMAQ funds in the past. The agency used "close to $30 million" in CMAQ funds for the first three years of operation on the Cross County MetroLink line.

Funds may be used for capital purchases or, if used for operations, for new routes. That means existing routes would have to be rewritten to qualify. (And it's the reason Metro wouldn't be able to use the money to keep the 91 bus to Chesterfield running.)

That's a problem for Ray Friem, Metro's chief operating officer.

"Let's say I just wanted to run the old (bus) 57 (which runs on Manchester) the way I always ran it. I really can't use CMAQ. I've got to change the route. I couldn't run exactly what I'm running now and obviously I believe that to be the best way to service that area," he said.

Sterman said he didn't off hand how much CMAQ money East-West Gateway received last year and is expecting this year.

Metro is receiving an estimated $40 million in stimulus funding, but none of it can be used for operations.

"It's one of those ironies that there's money available to buy buses and rail cars, and Metro could be in the business of selling buses and railcars if they are no longer needed after the reduction in services," Sterman said.

Friem agrees: "I can buy all the buses I want, but I can't use them."

Still, the funds will help the system with other costs.

Metro has "pretty significant capital needs on the MetroLink system" as well as repairs on Eads Bridge and a downtown MetroLink station that the agency could use the stimulus funds for, Sterman said.

In addition, Metro could use some of the funds on "maintenance to some degree," Sterman said. "They can actually benefit by substituting for some of their local money, which they can then put back into operations."

Even though CMAQ money seems unlikely and Metro has said many times publicly it has no other sources to tap, the agency continues to look.

"I'm working on a whole bunch of different fronts," Friem said. "We're working with the fringes of the stimulus package. There are still some things that may be doable."

Though there are no obvious sources of more money, "that doesn't mean there isn't a lobbying effort underway," he said. "There are things that can happen in omnibus bills and things of that nature. There are 67 transit companies involved in this now -- and their labor components. Just one or two words inserted here or there, and you would be able to split this up a little bit."

Meanwhile, Friem said Metro is working on new figures for a group of West County mayors who asked how much Metro would charge to offer service from some MetroLink stations to points in West County, including Chesterfield Valley. Business owners there are worried that they will lose workers because many of them use Metro to get to work.

The original figure of $4 million to run two routes around the clock was rejected as too costly.

"We're working with them now to pare that down," Friem said. The agency is looking at running three trips each way at peak times. "It still wipes out the second shifts of all those nursing homes," he said.

Friem said he is pursuing "a couple of different mechanisms because personally I don't think they should have to pay for anything. They already pay their taxes. I hate the thought of individual organizations coming up with separate funds for public transportation. It's a regional decision; we either do it or we don't."

Using other funds for capital improvements would generate savings "but not so much that it would add a bus route back," Friem said.

"I'm hoping that we get a little something to put some of this (routes that will be cut) back out because this is going to be tragic."

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently about transportation.