Tom Sullivan Takes on the Post

Dec 11, 2006 at 1:02 pm

Gadfly extraordinaire Tom Sullivan has never been one to shrink from a confrontation. Perhaps most famously, Sullivan, who toils by day at his small ad agency in Clayton, took on the Metropolitan Sewer District. After the years (and years) he spent pointing out waste and mismanagement within the agency, Sullivan must have felt some small measure of satisfaction when MSD's board of trustees submitted their resignations en masse just as the scandal finally broke in 2003. (See various RFT takes here, here and here) .

More recently, Sullivan has focused his critical lens on the Metro Transit Agency and MetroLink. (Suffice to say he's probably not been invited to Larry Salci's Christmas party.) In a related maneuver, he has recently begun e-mailing out annotated critiques of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's coverage of transit issues.

Sullivan's commentaries make for such interesting reading that it seems a shame not to share them with a wider audience.

The first, sent out late last month, appears verbatim (save for minimal formatting tweaks) on the jump. Sullivan can be reached at [email protected].

-Tom Finkel

Staff members of the Post-Dispatch often have multiple responsibilities, but the essence of their work is to produce an accurate report of regional, national and international news for you, our readers.

To do their jobs reliably and well, they need to be in contact with you and to be able to listen to your concerns and opinions and to hear your suggestions and tips. [-- from the Post-Dispatch Web site]

November 30, 2006 TO: Post-Dispatch Staff Members FR: Tom Sullivan RE: Concerns and Opinions There are several things to bring to your attention regarding recent coverage of the Metro transit agency. As some of you know, I think your coverage of the transit agency in recent years has often times been awful. Of late, there has been some improvement but the Nov. 21 article, "Highway 40 construction could cost Metro millions," is a step back. Comments on that article, and also the "Along for the Ride" of Nov. 20 and a Post editorial based on the Nov. 21 article, are made below in red type.

------------------------------------------ ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH NOVEMBER 20, 2006

ALONG FOR THE RIDE / Elisa Crouch Q. I take MetroLink downtown every day from either the Brentwood I-64 stop or the Forest Park stop. Sometimes both run out of parking if I don't leave before 9 a.m. or so. How is parking going to improve for those who want to park and ride? What's the deal with the garage that's being built at the Brentwood I-64 station? Is all that parking really for MetroLink, or for something else? Paula Hegger, Richmond Heights

A. Crowded parking lots are a good problem for Metro, just as traffic is a good problem for downtown. The bad news is there are no plans to add more parking spots at Forest Park. The garage at the Brentwood I-64 station should be finished late next spring or early summer, offering riders 700 more free spaces. The rest of the spots will be for nearby retailers.

Another option for you is Clayton, where there are 800 spots. You have to pay to park there, though. If you're a regular rider, you can buy a monthly combo pass for the garage on Shaw Drive for $80. Sixty bucks of that is for transit, and $20 pays for parking. (According to St. Louis County Ordinance No. 22,858,2006, Metro will pay the the county "half the revenue from each combo pass sold, but not less than $40 per pass." So only $40 will go for transit at the current price.)

Comment: This raises an issue, that the Post never deals with, as to whether taxpayers should provide free parking, or highly subsidized parking, for those who use public transit. For some, it is the only reason they use Metro. For example, anyone going to the Airport and needing to park their car while out of town, can park free at the Metro station on North Hanley and take MetroLink the short distance to the Airport. This is considerably cheaper than using the parking lots (that charge) by the Airport. Metro even promotes its free parking to increase ridership numbers. But is this the purpose of public transit?

------------------------------------------ ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH NOVEMBER 21, 2006

Highway 40 construction could cost Metro millions / By Elisa Crouch

The Highway 40 rebuild is sure to send thousands of motorists to buses and MetroLink. It also could financially damage the agency that provides those rides. (It's premature to be suggesting the Highway 40 rebuild project could damage Metro, though it will no doubt be the contention of Metro officials as they demand millions of dollars.)

Metro officials are figuring out what to do with 17 bus routes that run along or cross Highway 40 between St. Louis and Frontenac, Metro chief executive Larry Salci said Monday.

To keep service at the same level during construction, Metro will need to put 32 more of its buses into use, stretching its fleet to its maximum. (Salci gave a lesser figure at the Metro board meeting on Nov. 17, and said the buses Metro has available have high miles on them. No reporter from the Post-Dispatch was in attendance at the meeting.) Salci put the cost of running them at $6 million to $7 million. (Further down in the article it says Metro officials will analyze the construction plans in coming weeks. How can Salci come up with any figure without reviewing the plans?)

"The question becomes, where do we get that money?" Salci said.

Plans for rebuilding 10.5 miles of Highway 40 (Interstate 64) will involve closing entire sections in 2008 and 2009. Lanes between Ballas Road and Interstate 170 close first. Once that section is rebuilt, the section between I-170 and Kingshighway closes. Bridges throughout the corridor also will close at times for demolition and rebuilding.

Between 25,000 and 30,000 motorists must change their commuting habits, or alternate routes will become clogged, the Missouri Department of Transportation says. Officials suggest commuting during nonrush times, working from home, carpooling or using public transportation.

"Transit has to be part of the solution here," Missouri Transportation Director Pete Rahn said Monday.

Yet there's no provision in the department's agreement with Gateway Constructors, the contracting team selected to do the $535 million rebuild, to pay for additional buses and trains to alleviate the resulting traffic congestion.

The Transportation Department is constitutionally restricted from spending highway dollars on mass transit, Rahn said. He added that MoDOT will work with Metro to help keep current bus and light rail service.

"We're going to continue a conversation with them," he said, emphasizing the importance of mass transit. "It needs to be a viable option."

The Highway 40 rebuild comes as Metro faces a $28 million budget shortfall in fiscal 2008, which begins next summer. (It should be qualified that Metro claims the budget shortfall will be $28 million. Its figures have not always been trustworthy though they are seldom questioned.)

Metro's operating costs are rising partly because of MetroLink's new Shrewsbury line. The line costs $14 million to $15 million a year to run. Fares cover about a third of the cost. (An article in the October 8, 2005 Post-Dispatch states: "Metro will receive more than $42 million in local and federal money, most of which comes from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program. The money will be allocated over three years, beginning in fiscal year 2007." Wouldn't this pretty much cover Metro's operating costs for the first three years?)

Maintenance issues are building on the oldest part of the main line, between East St. Louis and Lambert Field. Debt payments on bonds are coming due, at $8 million a year. (Which bonds? Does the amount stay at $8 million a year or does it go up?)

Salci said he is speaking with Missouri legislators about a one-time appropriation that would help keep today's service levels for another year, until St. Louis County officials ask voters for a quarter-cent sales tax increase.

Bus ridership is on the rise, due in large part to periods when gasoline prices rose above $3 a gallon. (Huh? Has bus ridership increased and the numbers stayed up or did ridership fall off when gas prices went down?) Daily boardings on MetroLink are 67,000 to 68,000, said Dianne Williams, Metro's communications director. (It isn't mentioned that opening the new Metrolink line can cause ridership numbers to increase even if the total number of people using Metro stays the same. The Post-Dispatch has been misleading its readers on ridership figures for many years.)

In coming weeks, Metro officials will analyze the construction plans. Also in question is how they'll use the Ballas Road bus transfer center.

Theoretically, Salci said, Metro is in a good spot to ease congestion when Highway 40 work begins. But he added that the agency "could become, if this funding issue is not addressed, a contributor to the problem." (When the issue first came up, Salci and other Metro officials were not very interested in traffic mitigation, saying there was little they could do. One Metro official said Metro's biggest buses only have 45 seats, therefore there was little impact the agency could have.)

Comment: This article omits a lot of pertinent information while buying too much into the spin from Larry Salci, a well-known bullshit artist who makes it up as he goes along. Also, it isn't mentioned that Metro gave 10 buses to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. They could come in handy now. The article is also misleading on statistics; they need to be better explained. It also needs to be explained just what impact Metro could have on traffic mitigation. When the math is done, it seems Metro would not be of much help.

------------------------------------------ ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH NOVEMBER 22, 2006


Last Friday, the day that the Missouri Department of Transportation announced its plans for rebuilding 10.5 miles of U.S. Highway 40/ Interstate 64 in St. Louis and St. Louis County, Post-Dispatch reporters went out to gather reaction from folks who'll be affected - and who won't? We were struck by the wisdom of Heath Billingsley, 36, who commutes from his home in Lafayette Square to his engineering job at Monsanto Co. in Creve Coeur.

"When the time comes," Mr. Billingsley said, "I'll just suck it up and do it."

Good advice. Just suck it up and do it.

There's no way that the three-year construction period that starts next year will be anything but difficult. Traffic jams are going to be bad, maybe horrible. Dislocation will be enormous. It is going to be urban root canal, painful but necessary.

The good news, such as it is, is that the project will take less time than originally thought, and the worst of the traffic problems will be postponed a year.

MoDOT awarded the $535 million contract to a consortium called Gateway Constructors, which promised to complete it by Dec. 31, 2009, 10 months ahead of the October 2010 deadline originally contemplated. Key to that is Gateway's plan to use the first year to rebuild the highway interchange at Interstate 170 (the Innerbelt) and then close the highway down in stages, west of I-170 in 2008 and east of I-170 in 2009.

That Solomonic decision will halve the pain for motorists in and out of the Galleria-Brentwood business district. It won't do much for through traffic to and from Kingshighway and Interstate 270. The major impact will be felt downtown and at the Washington University and St. Louis University medical centers - although MetroLink could help soften the blow. (There is little on which to base such a contention.)

And if you live in West County and are planning to attend a Cardinals or Rams game in 2008 or 2009, you might want to leave early. Say, tomorrow.

It's disappointing, however, that neither MoDOT nor its contracting teams sought a bigger role for the Metro transit agency in their traffic mitigation plans. (Maybe they are aware of Metro's reputation. Not only was the Cross County MetroLink Extension a fiasco but so was the Delmar Streetscape project that Metro managed a few years ago.) Nor did they take into account the demands that the Highway 40 project will place on the financially-strapped transit agency. (Any such demands are unknown at this point.) Just to keep service at current levels, Metro will have to put 32 additional buses into service at a cost estimated at $6 million to $7 million a year. (This repeats speculation as fact, same as the Nov. 21 article.)

Those costs should have been factored into the highway project. Indeed, subsidizing greater use of Metro buses and MetroLink trains, and perhaps setting aside transit-only routes, could have created many positive benefits: quicker commutes, less air pollution and even a change in the civic mindset that relies too much on automobiles. In the long run, public transit will be key to the area's transportation needs. (Not even close to being true. Only about 3 percent of area commuters use public transit. Les Sterman once said MetroLink would be a success if that number was increased to 4 percent. Even this modest increase would require expenditures of many billions of dollars. Taking one percent of the 170,000 cars off Highway 40 every day would have no impact.) MoDOT could have, and perhaps should have, used this project to begin the process. (And if everyone could light just one candle, the whole world would be bright.)

"The reality is, we're a highway department," Mr. Rahn said, insisting that state law restricts the use of most transportation dollars to highways.

With due respect, creative minds can find enough flexibility in the traffic mitigation component of the highway plan to pay for alternate service options, including greater use of transit. MoDOT and its contractors should revisit the plan to find a way to maximize, and underwrite, the use of Metro buses and trains. (In case anyone has forgotten, traffic was a mess during the Cross County MetroLink construction. It could have been much improved but there was little effort by Metro to do so.)

Mr. Rahn said that he and his department have a lot riding on the Big Snarl. "We can't let this fail," he said.

"MoDOT has to come through. If we fail, it will have serious repercussions for us as an organization. This is not just an everyday project where we say, 'Oh well, we hope it works.'"

In the end, Mr. Rahn said, "the burden will fall on residents who have to change."

Change is hard for St. Louis, we know. So remember the wisdom of Heath Billingsley: When the time comes, just suck it up and do it.

Comment: So why shouldn't Metro suck it up like everyone else? Are area residents going to be reimbursed for all the extra time and gasoline they will use during the Highway 40 rebuild? Will businesses be reimbursed for the business they lose during the construction? Yet Metro takes the attitude of "we can't do anything unless we first get millions of dollars."