Prop A supporters work North St. Louis County

Prop A supporters work North County, Clergy aid vital passage of public transit tax

When people hear about a sales tax increase, they often become suspicious. Particularly with the Metro St. Louis transit agency. Particularly in the past. But after watching families and individuals suffer from six months of drastic cuts to public transportation, leaders of municipalities, businesses and organizations are setting aside their gripes with Metro to support Proposition A, a St. Louis County-wide, half-cent sales tax increase for public transit.

Proposition A will be on the April 6 ballot in St. Louis County.

The proposition, which failed in 2008, would also activate a quarter-cent sales tax increase for the City of St. Louis that city voters approved 13 years ago. In the city, the tax revenue would be about $9 million and, in the county, $80 million.

If the proposition does not pass, about 10,000 Metro riders would lose access to transportation and 600 Metro employees would lose their jobs, said Dianne Williams, spokesperson for the transit agency.

In the 2008 election, many people didn’t believe Metro would make drastic cuts. At that time, Metro was facing bad publicity after it lost a long-running lawsuit regarding cost overruns on the Cross County Extension. The lawsuit ended in November 2007 with the agency owing $2.6 million to the contractors who built the extension and $21 million in legal expenses. Many people resented Metro.

Yet in March 2009, Metro indeed cut 36.4 percent of its service, including Call-A-Ride, 19.5 percent of its rail service and 400 employees. Six months after the cut, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon passed a bill to provide Metro a $12 million one-time loan to restore some service and 250 jobs.

‘It’s about people’

Local leaders could not ignore the dire situation facing the region’s families and knew it could not continue. In January, Mayor of Chesterfield John Nations spearheaded a regional campaign, Advance St. Louis, to push Prop A forward.

The Rev. Ken McKoy, director/founder of the Metropolitan Organizations Strengthening and Empowering Society (MOSES), said the proposition will not pass if North County voters don’t get out and vote for it.

McKoy has been working on public transit issues in St. Louis for 12 years and has been a vocal critic of the agency’s plans. MOSES, formed in 2006 with about 25 pastors, has made public transportation a top priority. Now McKoy and others are going door to door, urging people to vote in favor of a tax increase for Metro.

“We’re not supporting Prop A for Metro’s sake,” McKoy said. “Metro is not a perfect agency, but the bottom line is: people won’t be able to get to work, to the hospital. It’s not about politics, it’s about people.”

McKoy’s campaign, which is supported and funded by Advance St. Louis, is aggressively targeting people in the Natural Bridge Avenue corridor. That’s where a high concentration of transit riders live. It’s also a strong support base for President Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay Jr. and the 2008 proposition.

In North County, the African-American congregations are the key to winning the election, said McKoy. Not only is the area crucial to bringing in the vote, it’s also the area with most ridership.

In some areas in North City, 20 percent of workers use public transit, compared to two percent in the county, according to a study by East-West Gateway Council of Governments. Almost 30 percent of downtown St. Louis residents do not have access to a car, compared to 6 percent in the county, the study reports.

Like McKoy, many groups actively supported the proposition in 2008. Now the drastic cuts have forced their campaigns to grow some teeth.

Transit Alliance, a group of 50 organizations, has been phoning and canvassing right beside Advance St. Louis, said Nancy Cross, board chair for the group.

This group joined together for the last campaign in 2008 with 35 groups. With Prop A, 15 more groups joined, including the RCGA and Association of General Contractors.

“If the people from North County come out, we should be successful,” Cross said.

On March 11, the Metropolitan Congregations United for St. Louis, also a partner with Transit Alliance, gathered about 75 people to ride the MetroLink and talk with commuters about the proposition.

The Rev. Kevin Kosh, pastor of Union Memorial United Methodist Church, was there representing his congregation of 648 members. About half of them live in the county. He said he has been announcing the April 6 election every Sunday.

“There is no metropolitan area that can meet the needs of the community without public transportation,” Kosh said.

“Those who live in the county must realize the importance to them. When companies come to St. Louis and they find out there’s no public transportation for their employees, they are not going to relocate in the county and they’re not going to relocate in the city.”

If it passes

If the proposition passes, the first step would be to restore service. Though not all lines would be restored, it would be a similar “footprint,” said Ray Friem, chief operating offer for the transit agency.

“We want to get back to the role of putting transit within walking distance of 98 percent of the jobs of St. Louis City and County as quickly as we can,” he said.

Metro also believes it can cut down on commuter time and cover more ground through a system called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), an express bus system with fewer stops and priority lanes. Created in Brazil, it has since been adopted in Los Angeles, Denver and Portland.

A Washington, D.C., think tank, Breakthrough Technologies Institute, compared the bus and light-rail systems. Its report shows that light rail systems cost between $40 and $60 million per mile to construct, whereas bus rapid-transit systems cost less than $20 million per mile.

Metro is exploring BRT routes along I-64, I-44, I-55 and I-270. The plan is to put two BRT lines in place within five years.

The BRT lines would mainly be along highways, but Friem said Metro is looking to apply a similar model to busy urban lines, such as the Grand Avenue line.

Then Metro hopes to have a MetroLink extension constructed and operating within the next 10 years. That is if all goes according to Metro’s “Moving Transit Forward” long-term plan.

As far as MetroLink extensions, the East-West Gateway Council of Governments is the body that prioritizes and recommends particular routes. Once a route has been selected, the task of constructing and operating it is turned over to Metro, said Williams of Metro.

History of the tax

This is not the first time that St. Louis area residents have heard about the need for public subsidy to support its transit needs.

In 1994, the Bi-State Development Agency, now Metro, announced that it didn’t have enough money to operate the MetroLink line that it completed the year before. Bi-State told residents that it needed a sales tax initiative to pass in both the city and county in order to keep the light rail line running.

In 1994, voters in the city of St. Louis and county passed a one-quarter-cent sales tax. However, the tax raised barely enough to operate the single line.

Many questioned whether the political leaders knew the actual cost of building and maintaining the transit system before proposing the tax.

In 1997, another one-quarter-cent tax was put on the ballot in both the city and county. But this time only the city passed the tax, and for the tax increase in the city to be activated, the county had to approve the tax increase as well.

Although more than 13 years have passed since the vote, the city’s quarter-cent sales tax increase will be automatically activated, if the county’s half-cent sales tax increase is approved this April.

This would bring the city’s transportation sales tax up to a full 1 percent and the county’s to 1.25 percent. Both would then be at the maximum levels allowed by state law.

However, there is a key difference in how the two taxes are handled. In St. Louis County, there is some discretion about how the money is allocated; currently, about a quarter of percent is used to subsidize road maintenance. In the city, all the transportation sales tax money goes to Metro.

If Proposition A passes, the county will take a quarter-cent, or $40 million, and put that money in its highways fund. By law, that’s allowed.

Funding Metro

In recent years, the state reduced Metro’s funding from $4 million to $1.2 million. The transit system’s total budget is about $200 million.

Regional sales taxes has been the bread and butter for Metro, like everywhere else in the state. If Prop A passes, every year the city and county will contribute about $196 million in sales tax for Metro.

Cities have had to find solutions to the lack of state funding for public transportation. Missouri’s $6.2 million in public-transit funding lags behind that of other states, including Illinois’ $498 million. Illinois gives Metro $23 million a year, compared to Missouri’s $1.2 million.

And that funding keeps dwindling. Since ¬2003, Missouri’s public transit budget has been cut in half.

By law, Metro cannot take an active role in advocating for the new revenue stream. Metro is reliant on the persuasive powers of Advance St. Louis, Transit Alliance and supportive congregations and organizations.

Accountability

Tony Thompson, principal of Kwame Building Group, who was involved in the Cross County MetroLink extension and suit, said the region must pass the tax, but Metro also must continue to make changes on the inside. Placing Bob Baer as Metro’s leader has been a good step, he said.

“He’s a confident leader, he means well, and he wants to move Metro forward,” Thompson said. “But that’s all it was – a first step.”

Thompson said next time he would like to see the agency involve the black community, the majority of its customer base, in discussing drastic cuts before they make them.

McKoy also said that Metro must make changes, and regardless of whether or not the tax passes, he will be watching.

For now he is excited about the unity in the campaign effort.

“I’m a black preacher who wears dreadlocks and a Democrat,” McKoy said. “John Nations is Republican from an affluent area. We are working together on an important issue. I believe that’s progress.”