Friday, April 23, 2010

St. Louis Transit Tax Victory - How Consent Was Achieved

St. Louis citizens have historically had a strained relationship with their public transportation system, the Metro.  Allegations of gross mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility have long plagued the agency. The allegations called into question the organization's credibility, especially by citizens of suburban St. Louis County whose taxes were supporting the system but whose residents rarely utilized it. As is typical, a disproportionate share of public transportation users were living within city limits.  Per a study by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, nearly 30% of downtown St. Louis residents do not have access to a car, compared to 6% in the county.

When Metro lost federal operating aid in the late 90's, the agency proposed to make up the difference by instituting a one-quarter cent increase for city dwellers and a one-half cent increase for county residents. Passage was contingent upon approval in both the city and county. County residents were up in arms.  Needless to say, the proposition passed in the city, but failed miserably in the county and thus progress remained at a standstill for eleven years.

In 2008, after the Cross-County Blue Line light rail expansion project had gone $128 million over budget and incurred an additional $23.6 million loss in legal fees and a breach of contract judgment against the agency, Metro's very serious money problems forced it to put a resurrected proposition on the ballot. At the time, the nation was fixated on the presidential election, to which the proposition took a back seat and thus failed to pass yet again.  Ensuing cuts to service were drastic; almost one-third of all service stopped overnight and over 500 Metro employees lost their jobs. When all public transportation outside the city's interbelt was discontinued, County residents started feeling the effects.  St. Louisans realized, “Some of us ride it. All of us need it.” Thus began their rallying cry. 

What took place next was an unprecedented grassroots effort, armed with the technology of 2010.  John Nations, the mayor of an affluent County suburb, undertook a primary role advocating for restoring metro service.  Major campaigns were launched by the Greater St. Louis Transit Alliance, Facebook groups coalesced, Twitter feeds ran rampant, the blogosphere commenced into overdrive, alliances were formed and before too long over a half million dollars was raised to support the tax increase measure. An extensive public outreach program was instituted, educating citizens on the importance of public transportation.  Armed with their slogan "Great cities have great transit systems", the alliance took to the streets in a door-to-door campaign to spread the word.  The alliance met with neighborhood associations, religious organizations and others. Over 140 major local businesses pledged their support. A volunteer-staffed phone bank was operated for over two months. It was even reported that local pastors incorporated Proposition A support into their Easter Sunday sermons. 

Don't think the movement didn't have its detractors.  John Burns, described by the Conservative Blog Watch as a "young conservative kid," led the fight against Proposition A.  In the weeks leading up to the April vote, the local public radio station discussed the topic almost nightly and held live debates between John Nations and John Burns.  Burns had the support of the growing Tea Party, and despite his lack of financial backing, went toe to toe with the venerable John Nations during a televised debate on the issue.  Ultimately, on April 6th, 2010 the proposition passed with a final vote of 63% in favor and 37% opposed. Metro President and CEO Bob Baer put it best when he said, "Nothing's impossible when we work together... I'm proud of the community coming together on an issue of this importance."

With the passing of Proposition A, Metro estimates the tax increase will provide an additional $75 million annually. The first order of business is restoring the service cuts of 2008.  Less than 48 hours after passage of Proposition A, Metro employees began removing covers obscuring the bus stop signs on discontinued routes. Among the projects to benefit from Prop A funding, Metro is looking into instituting a bus rapid transit pilot project. Long-term plans include further expansion of the light rail system.


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