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With 63 percent of the vote, Prop A, the half-cent sales tax for Metro, passes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 7, 2010 - St. Louis County election officials were still counting some of Tuesday's votes when supporters of Proposition A, the sales tax hike for Metro, declared victory amid deafening cheers at Washington University.

"This signals that the voters understand that public transportation is an essential component of job creation and economic growth," said a jubilant Chesterfield Mayor John Nations -- chairman of the chief pro-Prop A group, Advance St. Louis -- in an interview after addressing supporters, ranging from local business leaders to university students.

When it was clear that Prop A had won, a group of students at the victory party began chanting, "Metro! Metro! Metro!"

By the time the votes were finally counted, just under 63 percent of St. Louis County voters had favored Proposition A at the polls. The final tally -- 94,261 votes (62.91 percent) in favor of the tax, while 55,580 (37.09 percent) were opposed. Prop A likely helped fuel a slightly larger than expected voter turnout in the county -- 22 percent cast ballots.

That approval now clears the way for Metro, the region's public transit agency, to collect $80 million a year in new revenue.

Some of that money will come from the half-cent sales tax increase that county voters approved on Tuesday. And some will come from a sales tax increase in the city of St. Louis that was approved years ago but remained in limbo until the county passed a similar hike.

Metro chief executive Bob Baer said that the agency's first acts will be to restore more of the cuts in bus and light-rail service made a year ago, after county voters narrowly rejected a similar sales tax hike in November 2008.

Baer added that he and other Metro officials recognized the responsibility the agency now shouldered, as a result of the voters' shift in sentiment.

"We realize this is a vote of confidence by the public," Baer told supporters.

But John Burns, spokesman for the chief opposition group -- Citizens for Better Transit -- contended that the results simply proved that money talks. "I think we've done an amazing job, considering that we were outspend 1,000-to-one,'' he said.

Burns' group had partnered with the St. Louis Tea Party and its conservative allies in a vigorous grassroots campaign of robo-calls and rallies during the last few weeks. Several of the local Tea Party leaders, Bill Hennessy and Gina Loudon, said Tuesday's loss didn't deter their enthusiasm for getting involved in local contests-- or their opposition to tax hikes.

Burns pledged to keep the spotlight on Metro's management and their promises to the public. "They have proven that wealthy special interests can hoodwick the public,'' he said.

He was referring to the $900,000-plus raised by the pro-Prop A campaign, which came from a variety of area corporations, unions and individuals.

Nations said the broad range of support reflected the broad recognition of the importance of a strong regional public-transit system.

"I'm very proud of the effort that went into this campaign,'' he said. "This is a model about how to educate the public, and what regionalism can really do."

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said late Tuesday that the voters "made progress happen. "

"I thank the voters of St. Louis County for doing the hard thing ... because it was the right thing. This measure passed because (voters) took the outcome personally."

The campaign also saw unprecedented local involvement by Washington University, whose students packed the pro-Prop A victory party held on campus. University officials and student leaders had engaged in a spirited mobilization effort to amass support and votes for Proposition A -- on campus and off.

"We believe this is an issue of regional importance,'' explained Chancellor Mark Wrighton. The campaign marked the first time, for example, that the university had sought to reach out and lobby all alumni who lived in St. Louis County and, thus, could vote on the measure.

The university's deep involvement reflected, in part, its reliance on Metro's services, especially since some MetroLink rail stops border the campus. The university pays millions of dollars to Metro each year to provide transit passes for its students.

Since Sunday, student leaders had sought to mobilize students -- and get them to vote -- through a series of efforts that the campus paper said included "social networking, handing out buttons and fliers, dorm-storming,'' and stationing volunteers at high-traffic areas. Even the campus eating places are involved, selling dozens of cookies decorated like Metro buses, reports "Student Life."

Also on hand at Tuesday's victory party was St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and a fellow three-termer in the post, former Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr., who now serves on Metro's board.

Slay had fired off a lunchtime "Save Metro" appeal via e-mail on Tuesday, and called on city residents to contact their county counterparts in a last-minute appeal. Slay said that city residents hade a lot at stake in the county's decision.

"If county voters fail, a new round of (service) cuts will be even deeper," the mayor declared on his website.

Another last-minute electronic appeal for support was sent out Tuesday by the Regional Chamber and Growth Association.

Tuesday's polls were barely open, when both sides tangled in a dispute on Nations' home turf of Chesterfield. Burns contended that his group's volunteers were harassed by Chesterfield police when they showed up with "Vote No on Prop A" signs at the intersection of Baxter and Clarkson Road in Chesterfield.

Burns said the protesters "stood on public land on the side of the road" when a Chesterfield policeman said he had been ordered to move them back. Burns alleged that the action was ordered by Nations to "shut us down."

Lt. Steven Lewis, spokesman for the Chesterfield police, said that the department had ordered the protesters to move for safety reasons, and that city police don't allow any groups or individuals to stand in the intersection's median, or close to the sides, for safety reasons.

Even Boy Scouts are barred, Lewis said, because the intersection is so prone to accidents. 

Tuesday's celebration of Proposition A's passage was shared by a number of area groups who got involved to reverse service cuts that particularly hurt the poor, the elderly and the disabled.

Katie Jansen Larson, executive director of Metropolitan Congregations United, said cuts made last year helped people -- whether they use public transit or not -- realize the importance of mass transit in their lives.

"After the cuts were made, people began to realize the importance of transportation to their families and neighbors," she said. "Various congregations worked to get this issue on the ballot because they didn't want this (transit cuts) to happen again."

Restoring transit service, she said, "will give people jobs, it will get people to jobs and school and it will make communities healthier."

As an example, she cited Zion Travelers Missionary Baptist Church in north county, which canvassed 1,000 households. "The pastor organized it. People knocked on doors. People knew about the experiences of some without transportation."

At Paraquad, which helps the disabled, staff counsel Kimberly Barge said she hoped the added money for Metro will "bring back what we lost and make transportation accessible again. Unfortunately, it took the cuts to make people realize what it means to be without transportation. People began to see the devastating impact the loss was having on the county. It had the positive effect of grass-roots getting out and supporting the Proposition."

Tom Shrout, head of Citizens for Modern Transit, which had supported Proposition A, predicted that its success could lead to to "more Metrolink stations and more economic development and more jobs."

The job-creation point was stressed by the Rev. Tomis Pierson, who heads the 500-member Greater St. Mark Family Church in Bellefontaine Neighbors.

"Approval of this proposition brought a great satisfaction to me,'' the pastor said. "Men and women who lost jobs can regain them and more people will find work. This is a job generator and unlike a highway work, which is short term, this is work for a long period of time. It won because leaders got together and involved pastors and community organizations to get this measure passed."

.Robert Joiner of the Beacon staff, and Puneet Kollipara of Washington University's Student Life newspaper contributed to this article.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.