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TRANSITion: Metro explains what Prop A's half-cent sales tax would buy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 14, 2010 - To most residents of St. Louis County, April 6 is just another local election day. But to former St. Louis Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl, "This is the starkest civic choice in my lifetime."

Schoemehl sits on the board of Metro, the transit system. On April 6, voters in St. Louis County will turn thumbs up or down on Proposition A, a half-cent sales tax increase for Metro.

In Schoemehl's view, "The decision is whether to invest in building Metro into a state-of-the-art, competitive system.


"Either that, or lay off 600 to 700 Metro workers and shrink the system to a nub."

The system shrank last March, after county voters rejected a half-cent sales tax in November 2008. Metro cut almost a third of its service. After Missouri pumped in a one-time shot of $12 million in federal stimulus money, Metro restored a bit more than half the cuts.

But the stimulus money will be used up by the end of June. Without new sales tax money, Metro says it will have to cut service again, this time more deeply.

If voters approve the sales tax, Metro says, they'll not only see service restored and maintained -- they'll also see it expanded.

But Prop A faces opposition. Voters are generally wary of tax increases of any kind. One opposition group, Citizens for Better Transit, argues that Metro's priorities are skewed. The attention to light rail is misplaced; bus routes, they say, are cheaper and more efficient. They also say that a sales tax boost would hit poor people harder.

The sales tax would give Metro about $80 million a year. At a series of public briefings early this year, Metro officials laid out their plans for using the money. (Part 3 of this series will examine Metro's finances in more depth.)

"The top priority is restoring service from the cuts of March 2009," says Jessica Mefford-Miller, Metro's chief of planning and development. Among other steps, Metro would:

  • Bring idled buses back into service.
  • Run MetroLink trains every 10 minutes in rush hour, down from the current 15-minute interval.
  • Restore cuts to Call-a-Ride, the small buses used by the elderly and disabled.

Such service projects would use up about half of the sales tax money. Metro wants to use the other half to grow itself -- more MetroLink mileage, say, or maybe new bus rapid transit routes, using buses that look a lot like MetroLink cars.
"Riders want more MetroLink mileage," says Mefford-Miller. Trouble is, new rail routes eat up money ($60 million a mile) and time (up to 10 years of planning and construction).

Even so, Metro has penciled in five candidates to be the first corridor where MetroLink might lay down new rails. Although precise routes remain to be mapped, the generalized corridors are: (Story continues after the map, which was provided by Metro)

  • Clayton to Westport: The rails would run from Clayton's MetroLink station to Interstate 170, north along the highway to some point between Olive Boulevard and Page Avenue, then west to Westport.
  • MetroNorth: The route would start near MetroLink's North Hanley station and run north along or near I-170 to some point in Florissant.
  • MetroSouth: The route would start at MetroLink's Shrewsbury station and head southeast along the River des Peres to Interstate 55, then south past Interstate 270/255 to some point around Butler Hill Road.
  • NorthSide/SouthSide: Metro would add this mileage in two stages -- a starter line and then a full build-out. The starter line would run through downtown to the north along North Florissant Avenue and Natural Bridge Road to Newstead Avenue. The southern part would extend from downtown along 14th Street, then south along Jefferson Avenue to I-55. The full build would stretch the northern leg north from Goodfellow Boulevard into St. Louis County, ending near Florissant Valley Community College. The southern leg could be extended down I-55 to Bayless Avenue.
  • Madison County Tri-Cities and Edwardsville: Again, this route would be laid down in two stages. First, the rails would run from MetroLink's Emerson Park station in East St. Louis north to the Granite City and Tri-Cities area. The second stage would then run from Granite City to Edwardsville.

Planning for the route that's finally selected would take five years and construction maybe five more. After that, says Mefford-Miller, Metro wants to begin planning to push MetroLink rails into a second corridor.
By now, MetroLink is an old story in St. Louis, having operated since 1993. But fresh sales tax money could bring in something fresh to commuters -- bus rapid transit routes.

Mefford-Miller says such buses ride low to the ground, like MetroLink rail cars, and buzz along interstates, making fewer stops and taking less time than standard buses. Mefford-Miller says Kansas City has had success with such buses.

What's more, they're a lot cheaper than MetroLink (just $30 million for each route) and take just five years to plan and put into service.

Metro hopes to start three such routes in the next five years. Metro planners have sketched out five potential routes for bus rapid transit: 

  • On I-70 from Earth City - or maybe even O'Fallon, Mo. -- to downtown.
  • On U.S. 40 from Chesterfield to downtown.
  • On I-44 from Eureka to downtown.
  • On I-55 from the Jefferson County line to downtown.
  • Along Grand Boulevard in St. Louis, from Natural Bridge Road in the north to Loughborough Avenue in the south.

A final -- though more remote -- possibility is commuter service on passenger trains to downtown from Alton and to downtown from either Eureka or Pacific. But any such service would depend on the federal and state governments' building the costly right-of-way.
Metro also hopes to invest some sales tax money on amenities for riders. One would be "transit centers" -- stations where bus and MetroLink riders could find shelter while waiting for transfers.

Helping to educate the public on mass transit here is a group called Citizens for Modern Transit. One of its founders was former St. Louis Alderman John Roach, who sees the sales tax election in much the same stark light as Schoemehl.

Roach says, "If you want the metro area to grow, and if you believe in the spirit of civitas, this is something you've got to do."

Harry Levins is a freelance writer in St. Louis.