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How Prop M went off the track -- and what Metro plans to do about it

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 26, 2008 - The economic ill wind that swept Barack Obama into the White House may also be the reason St. Louisans will be paying more for their bus and MetroLink rides after the first of the year.

"What helped make Obama the president was probably our undoing," a senior adviser to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said, referring to the narrow defeat of Proposition M on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The proposition would have increased the sales tax in St. Louis County by a half-cent to provide operating and expansion funds for Metro, the area's mass transit agency. Passage would also have triggered a quarter-cent sales tax in the city of St. Louis that would have been used to construct a new MetroLink line.

After the measure lost, Metro announced a 25-cent fare increase in January and another 25 cents in July 2010. The agency also said it will reduce service to stay within its budget. 

Mike Jones, a senior adviser to Dooley, says he cannot predict when Metro will return to the voters to ask for a sales tax increase. The sales tax measure cannot go back on the ballot for at least 12 months.

"We're out of the box for 12 months, and there's not another county-wide election before April 2010," he said. "Right now we're trying to analyze the options that Metro has. One will be picked, and then we'll have to see where we go from there.

"I wouldn't forecast what we're going to do 12 to 15 months from now. You don't know what options you're going to have a year from now. My focus is not the 250,000 that voted against it but the 245,000 people that voted for it. If we could have changed 8,000 votes, we would have won." (The totals were 264,255 against and 248,338 for.)

Looking back at the campaign

Going into the final stretch, Jones said he never doubted Metro would win.

"Before the financial collapse, we were polling at about 58 percent approval," Jones said. "But after about Sept. 15 going into October, that 58 went down to like 52" percent.

Strategically, proponents of a sales tax need 60 percent going into the election "because you're going to lose some," Jones said. "Nobody ever gets exactly what they poll on a sales tax. So if you're sitting at 58, you got a nice margin there. You've got some cushion. If you're sitting on 52 and anything happens to you, bingo. You get what we got."

And that was a decisive defeat.

"I never expect to lose," he said. "I thought it would be 52-48, but I thought we'd be on the winning side of that. I got the spread right, but I got who got what wrong."

But he says blaming the bad economic news the last few weeks before the election is a bit of a "self-serving explanation." He adds: "We didn't do a good enough job."

He personally takes the blame for the proposition's failure.

"The Transit Alliance and the volunteers that lined up behind Proposition M did a fantastic job," he said. "I was thrilled with their support. I think the county executive (displayed) a tremendous amount of leadership and encouragement in making this an important issue for the last couple of years.

"Those of us who work for him and get paid to figure this stuff out didn't get our part of the job done. When you lose by three points and you do this for a living, you're supposed to be able to figure that out."

But what else could Jones have done?

"There's always something you can do, OK?' he said. "It's like in a ball game. You lose by 15 points, you don't worry about that. You lose by a basket, there was always something you could have done -- a free throw that you didn't make, a bad pass. . . OK, so the economy was bad. What did that have to do with winning? It was our responsibility to figure it out, and we didn't get it done."

Looking ahead to a new election

Once a tax increase is eligible for the ballot, Metro supporters will have to decide what kind of election would be best. Many think a sales tax measure does better in a general election.

"Conventional wisdom says yes," Jones said. "I'm always a contrarian on that one because in a general election, you get this huge turnout, but you also have an opportunity to get people who are against it. It also makes campaigning so expensive because if you're running in a presidential election, TV is more expensive, and there's more political clutter to cut through to get your message out there."

Jones speculates that Prop M probably would have done better on the February primary ballot.

"The bad break that we caught was losing the trial (Metro's lawsuit against the Cross County Collaborative) two months before February because that February presidential primary was an ideal election. It would have been a huge turnout with a lot of voters that favored transit and a short ballot."

Jones doesn't think Metro's loss in court influenced November's vote. "We recovered," he said.

The real losers

Perhaps no one is as disappointed by the defeat as Jones.

"What's painful about this is there are more people who depend on transit and we failed them," he said. "That's what I haven't let go yet. I don't believe in just because you made a good effort, that's enough. Either you got it done, or you didn't get it done -- and we didn't get it done. For the people who depend everyday on (Metro service), they have to have it. There are people who don't have a second option."

Despite his disappointment and worry about how Metro's fare increase and service cuts will affect those who depend on public transit, Jones' sense of humor surfaced.

"Short of hitting the lottery or robbing a big bank, maybe our strategy in the next 60 days is to see if we can turn Metro into a bank holding company," he said. "Maybe somebody will buy our toxic assets."

Kathie Sutin is a freelance writer in St. Louis.