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Times are hard, and Bob Baer, the CEO of the St. Louis public transit company, Metro, came to Jeff City Wednesday with his hat in his hand–and upside down–the better to collect the dimes he was asking for from the legislature. But hard times spawn many hobos, and how does the state decide which panhandlers to spare a dime for?

In financial trouble from a combination of lack of state funding (Illinois spends $38 per resident a year on public transit; Missouri spends less than $1.50) and past mismanagement, Metro has just cut about a third of its routes and a fourth of its workforce. Baer and the Chief Operating Officer, Raymond Friem–hallelujah and saints be praised for competence–are cleaning up the mess Larry Salci left them. Salci is gone, but so is the $40 million or so he lost in a lawsuit he should have known he was going to lose. Not gone, alas–as of last November 5th anyway–was the sour taste Salci left when he disparaged a reporter and the whole city: “He fits right into St. Louis, he’s a (expletive) clown.” If he’d gone around spitting on babies, he couldn’t have made Metro more unpopular, and since most residents didn’t yet realize on election day that the C(lown)EO had been replaced with someone who could handle the job effectively, many of them voted against raising the sales tax to fund Metro.

Considering the way Salci slimed Metro’s image and the fact that Proposition M was second to last among a slew of propositions, it’s surprising that Metro got 48 percent. Now that St. Louisans see how draconian the cuts are, Baer is confident that the next ask for more sales tax money in April of next year will succeed.

That’s especially likely if residents understand that the new CEO is dealing with the shambles Salci left and that his Chief Operating Officer Raymond Friem is good at what he does. Thomas Shrout, Executive Director of Citizens for Modern Transit, testified Wednesday, praising Friem.

Ray is head of the operations of the trains and buses and has done a magnificent job on updating the system, improving the on-time performance, keeping MetroLink stations clean and safe. Before he took over, Citizens for Modern Transit would get complaints from users about the system including rude drivers, dirty and late buses. Those complaints have virtually gone away.

Next year will probably take care of itself. Meanwhile, though, “facing an operating deficit of $45 million this year”, Baer is asking for a one time infusion of $35 million from the legislature.

The impact if he doesn’t get the money is dire. Many workers who used to take the bus, especially those who traveled from the city to the suburbs west of Highway 270, are now out of a job. And because they got fired for not showing up rather than being laid off, they’re not even eligible for unemployment benefits. Baer cited one VERY conservative estimate of the number of jobs lost at 3400–plus, of course, the 500 laid off from Metro.

Conventions and tourism will suffer. One of the first questions anyone considering booking a convention asks is “How good is the public transportation?” Furthermore, attendance at sports events will be affected: half the workers and a fourth of the fans get to Cardinals games on public transit.

Here’s a concrete image Baer offered to illustrate Metro’s importance: 100,000 people attending Obama’s rally under the arch. Most of them got there by Metrolink.

Because of falling sales tax revenue, Kansas City’s system is also in trouble, facing ten percent cuts in service, and its CEO, Bob Kohler, was there to ask for $14 million for the next two years. He pointed out the irony of reductions at a time when the need for public transit is at an all time high, or at least the highest since World War II. And cuts are one more blow to those scrambling the hardest to survive. 64 percent of those who use it in KC are going to work or looking for work. Almost half of the riders come from households that make less than $20,000 a year.

Transportation Committee Appropriations-Transportation and Economic Development Committee chairman, Charlie Schlottach, R-Owensville, understood the impact these cuts will have. “Every viable city has [good public transport]. We not only have to solve this short term problem, but envision a larger and bigger picture,” he said. He pointed out that the federal stimulus funds allocate about $110 for each U.S. citizen to be spent on roads and bridges, but nothing for public transport. It needs help in these troubled times.

Too bad the Speaker of the House doesn’t share Schlottach’s vision. Thursday morning, Ron Richard told reporters that he wasn’t willing to bail out Metro:

“There’s 100 and some odd million dollars that was mismanaged at Metro. … I still have some heartburn about it.” ( …)

“I’m not prepared to do what Washington did and give them a bailout,” Richard said. “The people made a decision and they have to live with it.”

Larry Salci and the County voters last November made their bed; now let them lie in it.

Richard did not, however, slam the door all the way shut.

“I asked Bob Baer for what the bare minimum is that he needs,” Richard said. “The number he has come down to is $12 million to $18 million.”

That much can be found. Actually the $35 million (plus $14 mill for Kansas City) could be found. Missouri will receive approximately $1 billion in budget stabilization funds. The money can be spent wherever the state deems it will be most helpful to stabilize our economy. Preventing the loss of 3900 and counting jobs, plus the job losses that would result from that lost spending is a worthy way to help stabilize the budget.

The first step is to convince Governor Nixon to make a supplemental budget request for the money. That request would then be taken up by Icet’s House Budget committee and would have to survive the usual legislative procedure of getting out of committee and being passed by both chambers.

Thirty-five million isn’t going to happen. But Metro may get enough to restore half the service it just cut, and the sooner it gets the funds, the better. Brother, can you spare a nickel?

The ball is in Nixon’s court at the moment. Your serve, sir.