» Referendum on April 6 could determine feasibility of the project.
Planners at Metro Transit call Moving Transit Forward St. Louis’ first serious long-range plan for public transportation. For the city’s voters, who will vote in April on a sales tax referendum called Proposition A, its release is better late than never; it is essential that the electorate have a clear understanding of the projects for which their money would be used.
For 2010, that’s what St. Louis will get, but in the process, citizens are being given the suggestion of a promise too big for their region to fulfill.
The last time around, in November 2008, voters in the transit area — including St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and St. Clair County (in Illinois) — struck down a proposal that would have increased the tax rate to pay for transit investments and potentially a new light rail line. There had been no elucidation of spending priorities before the vote, other than a claim that service would be downgraded without the new tax; this missing information diminished support significantly.
That lack of voter action has deprived the transit system of adequate funding, and it has had to cut services repeatedly in recent months. A new infusion of tax money must be put in place if the agency is ensure adequate long-term funding. That’s one of the primary reasons why Metro has made such a big deal of Moving Transit Forward, why it has held dozens of meetings to discuss it, and why it has modified the report’s suggestions as a result of public involvement.
Approved unanimously by the Metro governing board last week and likely be approved by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments (the regional MPO) later this month, the Moving Transit Forward plan promotes an enormous number of potential projects: eight light rail extensions, five bus rapid transit corridors, and two commuter rail lines.
It’s the complete antithesis of the set of minor proposals for Indianapolis unveiled last week by a local business group.
If Indiana’s capital city suffers from a deficit of ambition, Missouri’s largest metropolis may be afflicted by a glut of the stuff, at least relative to the city’s limits on funding capacity. If passed, Proposition A would generate an estimated $75 million a year from its 1/2¢ sales tax — a lot of money, to be sure, but certainly not enough to stimulate the kind of massive new capital investments promoted by the plan. This is especially true because Metro has committed to spending first on a restoration of bus and rail operations to service levels that were in place two years ago. Existing funds don’t provide adequate resources to cover those expenses.
Though Moving Transit Forward lacks a definite price tag (fault of a lack of in-depth research on each potential line), it does provide a general layout for how limited funds could be used over a thirty-year period, though it doesn’t prioritze any specific project. Within five years, two bus rapid transit routes could be built; within ten, additional BRT routes and one light rail extension could be implemented; within thirty, a second light rail alignment could be constructed. There is no clear plan for how spending for commuter rail would be undertaken.
Metro wouldn’t move forward on any of the projects without a commitment from the federal government and additional financial support at the local and state levels.
In other words, the huge network of lines suggested in the map above and in the Moving Transit Forward plan itself is more a chimera than fact — perhaps even an attempt to distract the voter with a sense of the possible, rather than bog him or her down with the reality of a lack of adequate finances. St. Louis will not be getting this system in the next thirty years, even if Proposition A is approved in April.
This isn’t to suggest that this plan has no merits. The NorthSide and SouthSide light rail lines, which would coalesce downtown, would serve the densest and most transit-friendly areas of St. Louis City; the same is true of the Grand BRT, which would operate as a sort of inner-city circumferential route and allow people to avoid downtown transfers.
I’m less enamored of the miles and miles of suburban light rail extensions also being promoted by the plan; these projects would likely attract fewer riders per mile and reinforce the job growth and residential sprawl that already plagues the St. Louis region. The highway-running bus rapid transit lines suggested for each of the Interstates radiating from downtown would be cheap to implement — they could run in converted automobile lanes — but they wouldn’t attract many users unless they could ensure quicker commute times than can cars. The commuter rail corridors, which would use existing freight track, are not transit as much as inter-city rail lines; they should be pursued by the Missouri Department of Transportation, not Metro. Spending on public transportation capital programs should be focused on St. Louis City, which has lost considerable population since mid-century.
For the region, Moving Transit Forward is a step forward, but it isn’t an exact list of projects to be funded over the next thirty years, and it makes no effort to prioritize investments. For the savvy voter, then, its suggestions may appear as just another example of Metro Transit skirting the question of how it would take advantage of its new funding capacity.
On the other hand, at least it’s a list of proposals at all: if St. Louis does move forward with the sales tax increase, it will have a refined ability to discuss and then choose from a defined universe of light rail, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail options. That’s more than it could say last time around.