Those who read this blog will know that the Loop Trolley is $8 million over budget, and Saint Louis County residents are getting stuck with the bill. We’ve also discussed that, despite the news breaking only a couple of weeks ago, regional officials have planned for overruns since mid-July, and may have known about problems much earlier. As Saint Louis County officials prepare to allocate mass transit funds to bail out the project, it is instructive to look at what the public was told about possible cost overruns during the planning phase—because they weren’t told that county taxpayers would be on the hook.
Flashback to July 16, 2012: On that day, University City held a special meeting on the Loop Trolley, at which Doug Campion (project manager for the trolley), presented an overview of the project. One of the council members asked Mr. Campion how much planners were setting aside for contingency (going over budget) and what would happen if the Trolley’s budget were exceeded. According to the meeting’s minutes:
“Mr. Campion said it would be normal to have between a 10 and 20 percent set up for contingency for the project. At the moment they have a 17.2 percent contingency. Mr. Campion said in the event that something would happen the TDD [transportation development district] could issue revenue bonds against it.”
Later, Mr. Campion reiterated that:
“…if there was an overrun the TDD would float a revenue bond to fund it.”
It is now clear that “something” has indeed happened, and the 17.2 percent contingency was not at all adequate. However, the TDD is not floating a revenue bond to cover the overruns, despite what Mr. Campion said when asked about this exact scenario. Nor did Trolley planners propose a special sales tax for the district or an increase in proposed fares, both of which could have been used to match an additional federal grant for the project. Instead, Saint Louis County is expected to pay for that match (and then some) with Proposition A funds. For those who have forgotten, Proposition A is a half-cent sales tax for mass transit. County residents were told that the tax was necessary to save bus service and improve existing transit so that people could get to work. Would voters have approved such a tax if they had known millions would be peeled off for pet trolley projects?
Saint Louis County residents were told that the Loop Trolley project would cost $43 million, and that construction contingencies were well in place. They were told that federal government and TDD revenues, not county taxes, would pay for the project and any cost overruns. They were told that Proposition A funds were about getting people to work and improving essential transportation. And now they’re being told to forget all that.