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Commentary: The facts support 'Yes' on Proposition A, the one-half cent sales tax for Metro

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 31, 2010 -An unbiased review of the facts surrounding Proposition A in St. Louis County on April 6 will lead to a fair and obvious conclusion: The public-transit system in the St. Louis region benefits all of us, but cannot continue operations or make improvements without the new, long-term funding source provided by the half-cent sales tax in Prop A.

But opponents of Proposition A are desperately attempting to kill public transportation in St. Louis by misrepresenting the issue and misquoting its supporters. Opponents appear to be hoping that you do not find out the truth about Proposition A.

It's time to cut through the political rhetoric and get to the facts that you need when you go to the polls in St. Louis County on Tuesday, April 6. (Editor's note: Nations addresses points made by an opponent of Prop A, John Burns.)

BURNS: "Only 10,300 St. Louis County residents use mass transit."

FACT: Burns's numbers come from an old census questionnaire and not from the actual Metro verifiable ridership figures. Which would you rather rely on? The numbers for 2006-2007, before the service reductions last year, showed 15.6 million boardings of Metro vehicles a year in St. Louis County. Further, Burns' numbers do not count the thousands of daily riders in St. Louis County who are not county residents but who rely on public transportation to get to their employment in the county. Nor does the include the thousands of students, disabled, and elderly. We will not have successful businesses in St. Louis County if we do not allow people from outside the county to get to their jobs.

BURNS: "Metro has ... repeatedly asked for tax increases."

FACT: Metro has been in operation for 60 years and has had only two small sales taxes in St. Louis County during that entire time, during which there has been tremendous change in the St. Louis region. The last increase was in 1994 -- 16 years ago -- and the only other tax levied to support public transportation was in 1974. Since then, federal funding for operations was eliminated and in the last four years, the cost of fuel has quadrupled. The St. Louis County Council voted to put Prop A on the ballot in April because so many citizens were distressed by service reductions after the defeat of the sales tax in 2008.

BURNS: "Metro made the disastrous decision not to apply for federal funding" for Cross County MetroLink expansion.

FACT: Metro did not, and in fact could not, make that decision. That authority legally resides with the East-West Gateway Council of Governments (EWGCG), the region's planning agency. Also note that EWGCG, the St. Louis County Council and the Metro Board have all agreed to pursue only future expansions that are supported by federal funds.

BURNS: "The plan doesn't contain simple information such as where a new light-rail route will be built and by what date."

FACT: After more than 30 regional public meetings, Metro has produced a long range plan which has been adopted unanimously by both the Metro Board and by East-West Gateway. The plan's priorities are (1) restore service cuts implemented in 2009, (2) expand the bus system and improve service throughout St. Louis County with expanded Metro Bus, Call-A-Ride for the elderly and disabled, and new Bus Rapid Transit, and (3) plan for future light rail expansion, which will only happen if economically feasible and with continued extensive public participation. Metro is not empowered to decide where a future light rail would be; that decision belongs to East-West Gateway.

BURNS: Metro "hasn't proven to voters that it can successfully manage itself."

FACT: More than 20 independent reviews and audits over the last two years have given Metro's new management team a clean bill of health. In fact, Metro has won awards for excellence in financial reporting, budget practices and risk management. The region's political leadership and more than 250 endorsements confirm that there is a "New Metro" which has definitely earned the public's trust and support.

BURNS: "Metro doesn't allow the public to look at its books."

FACT: Metro is a public agency and its financial statements, audits, budgets and nearly every other document it has are open to public inspection -- many of them online -- and are discussed in public meetings by the Board of Commissioners. Visit MetroStLouis.org and click on the "Inside Metro" tab.

BURNS: "With all of this oversight, why are they $50 million in the red?"

FACT: Oversight does not create revenue. Only revenue from fares, which Metro has increased four out of the last five years, is keeping pace with inflation. Federal funds for operating systems like Metro ended in 1999, leaving (in today's dollars) a $30 million annual gap. Many regions filled that gap with state and/or local support; ours did not. Missouri contributes about 1 percent of operating funds while the national average from states is about 23 percent. Revenue from regional sources has been flat or declining. Those are the reasons Metro needs more revenue. Opponents want you to believe that the funding situation began with the latest light rail extension, but the truth is that Metro has been talking about this for more than a decade.

BURNS: "Metro has demonstrated it doesn't care about its employees or the poor."

FACT: Metro's employees and the poor, who are among the highest number of Metro riders, are among the biggest supporters of Prop A. They all know how essential public transit is to them and to the region as a whole. Metro took many steps to avoid layoffs or service reductions, but it can only go so far when costs increase and revenues decrease. All one has to do is look at the many groups who are supporting this issue to realize how shameful Burns' political tactics are.

Those are the facts and they're readily available to anyone interested in the truth. And they clearly support a "yes" vote on Proposition A.

John Nations is mayor of Chesterfield, chairman of the Advance St. Louis campaign supporting passage of Proposition A, and a long-time advocate on employment and transportation matters in the St. Louis region.