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Feds say 'No' to Metro's attempt to get money for routes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 11, 2009 - A last-ditch effort to restore some of the bus service Metro plans to cut later this month is a no-go.

The Federal Transit Administration has denied a request by East-West Gateway Council of Governments that could have spared some of the drastic cuts Metro plans to implement March 30.

The council had asked the Federal Transit Administration if it could "flex" or transfer $12 million in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds that have been already allocated for other projects to use for Metro operating expenses. These mitigation funds typically can be used for transit only on new routes that will help reduce congestion and improve air quality.

The funds cannot be used for the routes Metro had hoped to use them for because they are not new transit service as required for use of CMAQ funds, Mokhtee Ahmad, regional administrator for Region VII of the administration, said in a letter dated March 10 to Metro Chief Executive and President Bob Baer. Region VII includes Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

The letter leaves no hope for Metro to get CMAQ funds to help with its operating expenses, Gateway Executive Director Les Sterman said. “That’s the definitive answer,” he said. "I don’t know if there’s going to be any pushback or not.”

Sterman added that there’s no other alternative for Metro to get funding “that I’m aware of.”

Baer could not be reached for comment.

In the letter Ahmad wrote:

"After much consultation within the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) we regret to inform you that we are unable to concur with your request to use Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) CMAQ funding for operating assistance.

"We reviewed the revised route structure submitted by your staff on March 9,2009, and determined that these routes do not constitute new transit service under the CMAQ Final Program Guidance dated October 2008. The CMAQ guidance allows operating assistance for new transit service or the incremental costs of an expansion of existing service. Given the fact that Metro is eliminating and/or reducing its transit services effective March 30, 2009, the new proposed routes do not truly constitute new transit service.

"CMAQ is not an appropriate source of funding for transit agencies seeking to reinstitute service that was recently discontinued due to budget constraints. The intent in providing transit operating assistance under the CMAQ Program is to support demonstrations of new service with the hope of attracting new transit riders and reducing transportation-related emissions of air pollutants. The 'demonstration' nature of this provision in the CMAQ guidance is evidenced by the three-year limit placed on operating assistance under the CMAQ Program. If the service at issue was only recently ended, there would be no demonstration to conduct; the emissions effects of the service would already have been established."

Metro had hoped to use the funds to develop new routes to replace some of those it will eliminate March 30 because of a $50 million operating shortfall. The agency plans to shrink its service by 44 percent eliminating bus service west and south of I-270, dropping express service, restructuring some routes and reducing MetroLink service.

Kathie Sutin is a freelance writer.