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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Analysis: Roads Far Outweigh Bikes In Transportation Tax List

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis area leaders squelched any doubts last week about how they want to spend money from a transportation sales tax. 

Sure, some of the regional projects funded with the .75 percent sales tax increase would bolster mass transit service or bike trails. But that's the exception rather than the rule: Most of the roughly $1.5 billion worth of requested projects would go toward roads, highways and bridges.

That's the conclusion of an analysis of preliminary project lists for four St. Louis area counties and St. Louis. They're working with East-West Gateway on how to spend close to $1.49 billion over the next 10 years on transportation projects — if, of course, the 0.75 percent sales tax increase passes on Aug. 5.

“Those became, I guess, the needs for those elected officials for those counties,” said East-West Gateway associate executive director James Wild, referring to road and highway projects. “They felt like that those road improvements were necessary.” 

The project lists turned in last week will almost certainly change before East-West Gateway’s Board of Directors finalizes projects on June 25. “Almost certainly” is an understatement; Wild said the cost of all the projects exceeded the roughly $1.488 billion that would be available from the tax.

Besides, Wild, said many of the price tags on the county lists “were not great estimates.” He said MoDOT is examining those estimates and applying some inflationary numbers “to the mix.”

“So what you’ll see is not necessarily that the amount of money available is going to change,” said Wild, referring to the final list. “But you’re going to see that maybe the number of projects is going to have to be reduced. Because re-estimating projects and applying an inflation factor of, I believe 3 percent a year, would reduce the number of projects that can be done.”

Even if the final list is different, the initial lists still show how road and highway construction is a dominant focus for most of the East-West Gateway counties. With the important caveat that the dollar figures and projects will likely change, here’s a closer look at some of the regional project requests.

On the Road

St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Charles County, Jefferson County and Franklin County requested more than $1.5 billion worth of transportation projects. Roughly $1.27 billion of that would go to repair roads, highways or bridges. 

That tally doesn’t include tens of millions of dollars that St. Louis wants to spend on “Complete Streets” projects to add pedestrian and bike-friendly features to several city streets.

Around $950 million of the road projects would go toward interstate highways. In fact, the largest project requested out of the five jurisdictions was $93 million for the Interstate 70/Interstate 170 interchange in St. Louis County. Other major roads due for a facelift are $153 million for Manchester Road in St. Louis County, $85 million for Route N in St. Charles County and $40 million for Missouri Route 47 in Franklin County.

St. Louis County had by far the most work on highways, with work on Interstate 270, I-70 and I-170. That prompted a decidedly negative response from mass transit advocates, such as St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley told reporters last Tuesday it makes “good sense” to focus on highway work when millions use them to move freight and people to major businesses. His spokeswoman also said making highways such as I-270 more structurally sound would help north St. Louis County’s economy.

“The county’s a lot larger, much more spread out — and needs more connection,” said Dooley. “Quite frankly, most of the businesses are in St. Louis County. And it’s a large metropolitan area. So we have to improve our roads and bridges. So we’re going to do that."

Tracking transit

One selling point of using a sales tax increase for transportation projects — instead of a gas tax hike — was that it wasn’t limited to just road and bridge repair. It could conceivably be used for mass transit projects, airports and trails. 

A MetroLink train
Credit St. Louis Public Radio file photo
Anybody expecting the transportation tax to pay for a MetroLink expansion were likely sorely disappointed.

Still, Wild cautioned last week that it was unlikely any tax proceeds could be used to fund “grandiose” transit projects — such as a MetroLink expansion. Only about $82 million out of $1.5 billion is expected to be spent on mass transit.

The largest project — and the city's biggest overall request — is $35 million to operate a potential streetcar line. (Read more about that project.) During a press briefing about the city’s requests, Partnership for Downtown St. Louis President Doug Woodruff emphasized the money to build the streetcar line would come from other funding sources — primarily the Federal Transit Administration. The transportation tax money, he said, would help operate the line if it’s constructed in the next few years.

Both St. Louis and St. Louis County included more than $28 million worth of requests to fund bus rapid transit. St. Louis wants to spend around $14 million on improvements to MetroLink stations. And Jefferson and Franklin Counties want to spend close to $1.7 million to transport elderly and disabled individuals.

As mentioned before, some critics of the initial list say it's short of transit projects. And Wild said the final list probably won’t see a “sudden swap of transit and freight and bicycle projects for roadway projects.”

This and that

The five jurisdictions asked for more than just mass transit and roadway projects. Some of the other noteworthy requests include: 

  • $7 million to bolster Jefferson County’s Port;
  • $14.5 million to reconstruct Route H East Grand to Riverview Drive in St. Louis City, which is seen as a major freight project for the city;
  • $14 million to improve access to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport;
  • $4 million for a “real time” traffic monitoring center for the city of St. Louis. This would be located at the new headquarters for the St. Louis Police Department.
  • $1.5 million for improvements at the Kirkwood Amtrak station.

St. Louis and St. Louis County also included about $31 million worth of projects for Great Rivers Greenways’ trail systems and Gateway bike plan. Susan Trautman, executive director of Great Rivers Greenways, said those types of investments provide “just one more opportunity to make St. Louis a better place to live.”
“I would say the city is leading the way in making sure that there are pedestrian-friendly improvements,” Trautman said. “The region is moving to wanting to attract talent. That means we’ve got to have greenways and bikeways. It means we have to have pedestrian-friendly streets and intersections. The city’s done a great job of making those a priority.”

At what cost?

Of course, the funding for these projects won’t just materialize out of thin air. They’ll be derived from a sizable increase in sales taxes, which are already fairly high in St. Louis area jurisdictions. 

If the transportation sales tax passed, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted, St. Louis’ sales tax rate would go up to 9.429 percent -- higher than New York or Los Angeles.And that doesn’t take into account any of the city's special taxing districts, such as Loughborough Commons in south St. Louis (10.429 percent) or the South Grand area (11.429 percent). 

Looking at the Missouri Department of Revenue’s sales tax table, the transportation tax would cause Arnold’s sales tax to rise to 9.1 percent from 8.35 percent; Wentzville Bluffs’ Community Improvement District to rise to 10.2 percent from 9.45 percent; and the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District in University City to 0.3 percent from 9.613 percent. (It's worth noting, though, that the tax wouldn't be collected on groceries or medicine.) 

Those examples illustrate why political figures from across the political spectrum have opposed the transportation tax. The late Rory Ellinger, for instance, remarked last year that he didn’t “mind having my law office pay a little bit more in taxes for better roads in Missouri. But I don’t think it should be dug out of the pocketbooks of the Social Security retirees.”

During a press conference last week, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay conceded the “regressive” nature of the sales tax increase gave him pause.

“It is a regressive tax, which is something that concerns me as well. That is one of the reasons — actually the main reason — why we decided to support projects that would impact the broadest base of people,” Slay said. “And to make sure that we put those investments in the areas that have seen a lot of disinvestment in the past.”

“It’s one of those things where we get the downside. But we are also looking at the upside,” he added. “And I think the upside is very good.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads about Missouri politics.

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.