Metro receives feedback about proposed rate increases
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 20, 2012 - A fare increase worries Charles LaRocco, a South Grand resident who depends on Metro’s service for his daily life.
Even though increasing the cost of a monthly pass by a few dollars a month may not seem like a steep boost in the grand scheme of things, LaRocco — who uses Metro often — said the costs can add up. He noted that he also pays for his wife’s disabled pass, meaning that his total now is about $102 a month.
And he said proposed fare increases may hurt poor riders, who perhaps cannot afford monthly or weekly passes.
“There are a lot of people… who take public transportation that have low-income jobs and limited income,” LaRocco said. They’re "senior citizens — disabled, too — who can’t afford cars. With gasoline going up to $4 a gallon, a lot of people who have cars probably have to park them and catch public transportation.”
LaRocco showed up at St. Louis City Hall Wednesday to provide feedback about how Metro should structure its impending fare increases. Metro also held "open houses" this week in East St. Louis and Clayton as well as a more formal meeting at Metro’s headquarters Thursday.
Metro officials say they need to enact smaller increases more frequently to pay for the growing costs for fuel, parts and labor. Metro is soliciting public comments on the three options, which would include:
- Keeping prices for two-hour passes and transfers the same, but raising the costs of weekly passes from $23.50 to $26 and boosting the cost of a monthly pass from $68 to $75.
- Increasing the cost of a two-hour pass from $2.75 to $3; boosting a weekly pass to $25; increasing the cost of a monthly pass to $72.
- Enacting a 5 percent across the board fare increase. That means the price of two-hour passes would go up to $2.85, a weekly pass would increase to $24.75 and a monthly pass would inch up to $72.
“We’ve presented three proposals to the public, and we’re genuinely interested in their feedback about what they think our fare structure should look like,” said John Nations, the president and CEO of Metro. “I don’t know what the surveys are showing. Frankly, I’ve talked to people who are in favor of each individual one. How it’s racking up in terms of votes or preference, I don’t know at this point.
“I think that is good is we’ve taken a lot of feedback from a lot of people with a lot of different points of view. That will help us make a decision and a recommendation for the board,” he added.
At Wednesday’s events, Metro officials set up a series of placards that showcased the options for the fare increases. Staffers also answered questions and told people how to fill out comment forms that may guide the agency’s decision-making.
Ferguson resident Dana Townsend, who attended Wednesday's session at the St. Louis Government Center in Clayton, said that the various proposals were “feasible.”
“I’m still debating which one would be the best option,” Townsend said. “So I need to take the information back and look at it.”
St. Louis resident James M. Babcock said he didn’t think the proposed fare increases were “too bad.” Babcock, who is retired, said he uses Metro occasionally, usually when he has to go to the doctor.
“Right now I’m doing the cash fare, because the $34 [pass] would not benefit me,” Babcock said. “I’m not getting my money’s worth. … [A cash fare increase] is not too much. Compared to the gas costs and everything, that’d be more than that if you took your car.”
Thursday’s event at the agency’s headquarters in downtown St. Louis featured a public presentation, followed by comments.
Deborah Lancaster, a St. Louis resident who commutes to St. Louis County for her work as a chef, said she learned at the information sessions that Metro "cannot run on air; they need money to run and operate." Besides suggesting more customer service on the weekends, Lancaster said she preferred the second option.
"Because it's not going up a huge amount, like $50 or $30 out of your pocket immediately," Lancaster said. "But it's by little increments, so you could at least adjust your budget. And I think that option two is the fairest and best one."
Edward Williams, a St. Louis resident who attended Wednesday’s event at St. Louis City Hall, agrees. While he likes the second option because it doesn’t raise the monthly pass as much as the first, he added that increasing cash fares could adversely affect people.
“Because I’m public transit dependent, that’s the only way I can get around. I have to buy a pass because it’ll work out for me in the long run versus trying to come up with the money for the cash fare,” Williams said. “But some people don’t ride enough to where a monthly pass would benefit them. And usually those are the ones that are more cash-strapped. They have to go somewhere and then they have to get their kids’ fares and such — it’s more of a financial burden for them.”
St. Louis resident Brady Brown criticized Metro’s desire for a fare increase, noting that many of the system’s riders are struggling in the languishing economy.
“Do keep in mind at this point in our nation, we have a whole slew of people who are unemployed or underemployed like myself,” Brown said. “And you guys are speaking of not getting funding. Well, I and probably everybody in this room work public service sector jobs like in hotels or fast food industries. And even when the economy’s good, when you’re underemployed you rarely get a pay increase.
“And your true ridership is the working poor that unfortunately have to sacrifice getting up at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. for a menial, (low-wage) job,” he added. “And so you’re talking about sacrifice? We’re doing a hell of a sacrifice.”
Nations said the fare increase is necessary to keep up with fuel, equipment and labor costs. Asked about whether fare increases could disproportionately hurt poor residents who use Metro, Nations said less than 20 percent of Metro’s operating costs comes from fares.
“To have a system, it is necessary for the people who ride it to pay a portion of the costs,” Nations said. “But overall, we are by far the most economical choice for people to get where they’re going. … We have been operating this service for the public since April 1, 1963. And we have always been the best choice for the economically disadvantaged to travel and we will remain so.”
Jessica Mefford-Miller, chief of planning and system development for Metro, said the agency is constantly analyzing the various aspects of its ridership to make sure people are being served.
“We look at surveys and look at how people pay their fares to make sure we’re spreading the fare increase out equally among customers,” Mefford-Miller said. “So that’s something we’re constantly try to do — to keep in touch with our customers about what they need, how they’re paying their fare. And then we adjust our policies accordingly.”
State options limited
LaRocco said the state should consider contributing toward mass transit so that entities like Metro don't have to depend so heavily on sales taxes.
Nations added that it is “unfortunate” that the state “doesn’t invest in public transportation.”
“Around the country if you look at a transit budget, which is paid for by state government, it’s about 25 percent,” Nations said. “Here we have a $250 million budget and the portion that we receive from the state of Missouri is about $186,000.”
Back in 2009, the Missouri legislature did provide Metro with $12 million as a way to give the agency some breathing room before it asked for a tax increase. But that money was paid in installments, Nations said. When voters approved a sales tax increase in 2010, Nations said the last $4 million of the $12 million wasn’t received by the state.
More state funding is unlikely, especially given the state's budget crunch. Allocating funding for Metro in 2009 was not popular among legislators and it took several attempts to get the funding through.
Nations said that a definitive plan should go before Metro’s Board of Commissioners at its May 18 meeting. Since Metro is empowered to determine its fares, he added, no public vote is needed. Mefford-Miller said the plan is for the fare increase to become effective on July 1.