Major Endorsement from St. Louis Voters for Transit Improvements

» St. Louis County voters agree to 1/2¢ sales tax increase designated for the Metro transit agency.

It’s nothing less than a roaring comeback for public transportation in St. Louis: After a narrow loss at the polls for a proposed tax increase for transit in 2008, voters came out massively yesterday for similar measure, with 63% in favor. This approval will increase sales taxes by half a cent in St. Louis County, increasing contributions to the Metro transit agency by an estimated $75 million a year. The passage of the sales tax also triggers a quarter-cent sales tax increase in St. Louis City (not part of the county) first approved in 1997, adding an additional $8 million annually to region’s transit pot.

This is the first increase in local funding for transit in St. Louis County since 1994.

Proposition A will allow Metro to increase bus and light rail service to levels offered as recently as March 2009. The failure of 2008’s Proposition M forced the transit agency to reduce operations significantly; over the past year, Metro has ceased running buses to 2,300 of the region’s 9,000 stops. Because of the damaging effects of the recession, Metro warned that without the passage of this year’s referendum, it would have to reduce services to 50% of the 2009 benchmark, representing nothing less than a desecration of the region’s public transportation network.

Yesterday’s voter approval not only will prevent such service downgrades, but also allow Metro and the East-West Gateway Council of Governments to begin planning expansion of the region’s fixed guideway routes, including light rail extensions and new bus rapid transit or commuter rail lines. Potential services have been laid out in St. Louis’ Moving Transit Forward guiding document, submitted for citizen review earlier this year.

St. Louis’ passage of a sales tax increase in the midst of a serious economic downturn serves as a powerful rebuke to anti-tax zealotry such as is promoted by conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Tea Party. More than that, though, it demonstrates that a well-run campaign premised on the promise of palpable improvements in a public service can succeed, even in a difficult environment.

As I see it, St. Louis’ success is explained by three coalescing factors. One, there has been a popular realization that transit service is an essential necessity for the efficient functioning of the region and that those operations are dependent on adequate funding. The dramatic downgrade in service provision after the failure of the 2008 referendum made getting to work more difficult for a large section of the region’s population; the lack of adequate funding was made manifest in Metro’s clear demonstration of its efforts to improve efficiencies even as it had to cut back on trains and buses.

The question is whether St. Louis could have passed a similar measure without first having to suffer through service cuts. In other words, can the citizenry be convinced of the value of transit without first having to see first hand what it’s like without it? The answer probably depends on the degree to which two other explanations for the measure’s passage have been articulated.

If Metro entered the 2008 vote with a scarred reputation — its services had been plagued by high-profile crime among other problems — the agency’s management has made a concerted effort over the past year to demonstrate that it is a good custodian of public dollars and that it has been an efficient distributor of funds. Unlike in 2008, when Metro presented no real long-term plan for future transit expansion, Metro clearly timed the writing and review of its Moving Transit Forward proposal to show concretely how it would go about spending additional funds if it had them.

Meanwhile, the public review of the Moving Transit Forward plan emphasized participatory democracy. By staging meetings across the region, developing an active website and encouraging communication between “regular people” and top management at the agency, Metro demonstrated that it wanted to plan the region’s transportation options with the population in mind. Governments have a strong incentive to show that their efforts are designed to meet the needs of people on the ground.

The effort to project this kind of competence from the public sector is obligatory if the goal is to get voters on board with a tax increase.

Third, because as a government agency Metro is forbidden to campaign for the passage of an electoral measure, a business-institutional-citizen coalition called Advance St. Louis worked in favor of Proposition A both by organizing volunteering campaigns and raising money for advertising. By providing material support for public transportation, the alliance demonstrated the universal appeal of improved rail and bus services. Advocacy of increased taxes cannot come solely from politicians, or it can be distorted into a play to “take” more money out of the taxpayer’s pocket.

Other cities hoping to increase tax for the purposes of improved transit should learn from the St. Louis example and work to develop public recognition of the value of public transportation, a demonstratively efficient public sector with clear goals, and a non-profit third party actor in favor of the program.

The passage of the sales tax is certainly big news, but the degree to which it can actually produce major service improvements is questionable: the addition of $82 million a year isn’t that much money when a significant portion of the funds must go to operations and the region has a multi-billion dollar transit plan on its plate. Metro’s almost $300 million operating budget (including depreciation) is substantially underfunded by existing revenue because tax receipts don’t keep up with cost inflation. In other words, a tax that is adequate in covering operational costs for the first year will be insufficient ten years later. This probably means that Proposition A will only provide “excess” funds for capital construction for a short period; it is likely that the entirety of its collections will unfortunately eventually have to be designated for operations. The lack of significant aid from the State of Missouri doesn’t improve matters much.

Thus Metro is in a more tenuous long-term position than the passage of this new tax implies.

Even so, the construction of both a light rail line extension and a new bus rapid transit line seem feasible over the next ten years, as long as federal funding in the form of a New Starts grant can be assembled. The construction of the Shrewsbury light rail extension, completely reliant on local financing, came in over budget and has saddled Metro with $34 million in annual back-payments on bonds used to build the corridor; its example is not to be followed.

The East-West Council of Governments has yet to select a preferred route for new service, but the group will pick one of the lines highlighted by Metro. It should focus on routes that are most cost-effective in terms of ridership — corridors that serve high densities of population — rather than extensions into the far suburbs intended purely to gain support from a geographical perspective.

8 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Congratulations to the voters and people of St. Louis! I’m happy to see my hometown recognize the importance of transit to the regional economy after so many years of bad news on this front. Next challenge: doing a better job of building transit oriented development around Metrolink stations.

  • Matt

    Wow – as a St Louisian I am really proud and excited by this outcome. There was a ton of negative publicity regarding Prop A, I’m really amazed this passed by such a high margin. Now we’ll see if Metro can continue to turn it’s image around after the cost and time overruns on the cross county project. Hoepfully the expected westport LTR will come in on time and under budget.

  • My family in Saint Louis are huge fans of Metro and (like myself) were quite pleased with the results of last night’s election. You’re right on the mark about where new MetroLink extensions should be located: STL city has plenty of dense neighbourhoods with standard-grade bus service that could easily support full-on MetroLink lines.

    I’m of the opinion that HART, the transit agency here in Tampa/Hillsborough County, should closely emulate the Prop A campaign. Public attitude toward transit is similar to that in STL, with the important caveats that we only have a small streetcar line – but also several Republican boosters for dramatically expanded transit service.

  • Chris

    I think the fact that the money might not be enough to fund light rail extensions out into the middle of nowhere is great news. Perhaps when all the inner city bus routes run every 15 minutes or more all day from 6 AM – 12 AM, making a true car free life style possible, then we can consider an expensive extension so Joe Suburban Sprawler can take his little kid for a Sunday train ride.

  • Adam

    As a Washington University alum from the Northeast, I have to say one of the things I found annoying about St. Louis was the requirement to have a car and the general lack of transit.

    If they’re going to do sprawling rail out to the suburbs, one of the things they should consider is an alternate route to Alton via the airport or Lindbergh or something and make it compatible with a future Chicago-St. Louis HSR route. The portion between St. Louis and Alton is just as bad, if not worse, than New York to New Haven on the NEC. Plus Altonites have easy airport access.

    Also, the reason Metro ran overbudget with Cross County is because of the NIMBYs on Forsyth Boulevard in U-City insisting they get a subway.

  • stino

    I’m a bit confused. If the city is not a part of the county, will the money have to fund services in the county only?

  • Matt

    No the funds will go towards transit in both the city and county. Both passed tax increases, it just too St Louis county 13 extra years to do it. The City’s tax could not go into effect until a similar one was passed in the county.

  • One of the conditions the county council put on metro before this hit the ballot is that Metro cannot spend any money on ‘material expansion’ without matching federal dollars.

    Metro isn’t getting new light rail or buses yet. The service, tech, and finances are getting shored up. This money prepares the organization to have ready funds that will help secure federal grants.

    It doesn’t matter that the city is not part of the county because metro’s tax district covers both, as well as St. Clair County. They have a regional mission, and are supposed to make the most logical choices. If they’re expanding into the county, it is because that’s where the job density is.

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