Councilmen vote 4-3 to place Metro sales tax on April ballot

Baer says Metro ‘efficient’; opponents leveling ‘false charges’ with no specifics

By EVAN YOUNG

Whether the Metro transit agency will benefit from a new, permanent funding source now is up to county voters.

The County Council voted 4-3 Monday afternoon to place a half-cent transit sales tax hike on the April 6 election ballot.

Voting in favor of putting the issue on the ballot were 1st District Chair Hazel Erby, D-University City; 2nd District Council-man Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland; 4th District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-north county; and 5th District Vice Chair Barbara Fraser, D-University City.

Opposed were 3rd District Councilman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country; 6th District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-south county; and 7th District Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin.

If the proposition succeeds next April, the new sales tax would generate some $80 million annually for Metro, depending upon the economic climate. The transit agency already receives county funding through a quarter-cent transit sales tax and half of the revenue collected from an additional half-cent sales tax. Revenue from the latest half-cent transit sales tax would give Metro the short-term resources to further restore bus service that was cut earlier this year, offer service enhancements like smart-card ticketing technology, construct a new Bus Rapid Transit line and begin to plan a new MetroLink light-rail corridor, agency officials have said.

To combat financial problems following the November 2008 defeat of Proposition M, a similar half-cent county sales-tax proposal, Metro’s Board of Commissioners voted to raise rider fares, cut hundreds of jobs and eliminate more than 30 percent of light-rail, MetroBus and Call-A-Ride paratransit van services. Service cuts took effect in March, but millions of dollars in one-time stimulus funds and federal grant money helped the agency restore a number of routes in August.

However, Metro officials have said the temporary restoration plan will end next May unless a permanent, stable source of funding is secured.

In addition, agency officials have said funding is needed to proceed with Metro’s long-term, public-driven plan to expand and enhance transit service throughout the region.

The plan includes five-, 10- and 30-year service goals for the agency but depends greatly upon a strong local, state and federal funding structure, officials have said.

It would take up to 10 years to begin operating a new light-rail extension, which means, ideally, Metro could construct three lines in 30 years with adequate funding, officials have said. The agency recently finished the second round of public workshops on its long-range plan, and commissioners are expected to sign off on it early next year.

From there, the plan would go before the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, which would have the final say on where and when new light-rail and bus corridors would be built. Voters would see the final draft of Metro’s plan before heading to the polls in April, officials have said.

The ballot language of the sales-tax proposal changed as it moved through the County Council. While it initially only stated the new sales tax would be used for “public transportation purposes,” the language was amended to read “public transportation purposes including the restoration, operation and expansion of MetroLink, MetroBus, disabled and senior transportation …”

Though it’s not mandated in the county ordinance approved Monday, Metro officials have said half the revenue from the new sales tax would be used for operations and half would be used for service expansion.

The tax contains no sunset provision, meaning the county would collect it indefinitely.

Dozens of people spoke in favor of the sales-tax measure at the last two County Council meetings. They contend the existing transit system is insufficient. Reduced bus and light-rail service has made it difficult — and in some cases, impossible — for them to get to work, school and other places.

Chesterfield Mayor John Nations, who is leading the campaign to get the sales-tax measure passed next April, said during a news conference Monday afternoon that a “truly world-class, 21st-century transit system” is an “essential part of how we’re going to grow our region.”

More than 51 percent of county voters rejected Prop M in November 2008, but Nations said those who voted against the measure didn’t realize how much of an impact the service cuts that followed its defeat would have on their lives. When the service cuts took effect, county residents found out “what it means to have a substandard transit system” and realized how mass transit in general “affects them, whether or not they use it.”

But University City resident and longtime Metro critic Tom Sullivan believes the agency already has enough revenue to build a sufficient transit system. Instead of a tax hike, Sullivan told the County Council Monday, Metro needs “honest and competent management.”

Metro is so fiscally irresponsible that it could hypothetically buy all of its riders new cars and still save hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade — even at current funding levels, Sullivan contends.

Before casting his “no” vote Monday, Quinn said Metro is asking county residents for a “bailout.”

“We see many states right now that overspend taxpayers’ dollars, and now they find themselves in (a) very … difficult financial crisis. What they’re doing now is asking their taxpayers to bail them out,” Quinn said. “Metro overspent by building the last MetroLink extension (to Shrewsbury), knowing that they wouldn’t have the money to operate that extension once it was built. Just like those states who overspent, Metro is now looking to the taxpayers of St. Louis County for a bailout.”

Quinn believes Metro has a “long-standing policy of slighting certain areas” when it comes to providing transit service.

“One of the speakers (during the period for public comment at Monday’s meeting) said, well, if the people in south county choose not to take public transportation, that’s their business. A lot of people in south county can’t take public transit because it’s not available, and that’s the same for virtually all of west county,” Quinn said.

The councilman said he didn’t believe south and west county would ever see additional service, even with a successful ballot initiative, “because that’s always what has happened with Metro.”

Quinn added that Metro President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Baer “does what the policymakers essentially dictate,” referring to St. Louis city and county leaders.

Stenger has said he wanted assurances from Metro that south county would benefit directly from the new sales tax.

“I’m a proponent of public transit, but I’m a proponent of public transit for everybody,” Stenger said after last week’s 4-3 vote to initially approve the sales-tax bill.

But the councilman told the Call after Monday’s meeting that those assurances never came.

That, combined with “vague” ballot language that contains no sunset provision, led to his “no” vote this week.

“If I voted ‘yes,’ (the bill) would’ve still passed, and south county would receive nothing,” Stenger said.

But Baer disputed Stenger’s arguments Monday, saying there was “no game plan to reject south county.”

Noting he is a Sunset Hills resident, Baer said, “You think I want to deny my own community, family and friends service? Of course not.”

Baer said Metro was an “efficient” organization and called its opponents’ criticisms “false charges without any specifics.” He added he was “thankful” the council put the sales-tax proposal on April’s ballot.

After the council’s final vote on the Metro bill, County Executive Charlie Dooley noted that major metropolitan areas aren’t successful without public transportation.

“Public transportation does not pay for itself,” he said. “That’s why it’s called public transportation.”

In a related matter Monday, Wasinger introduced a bill that would require Metro to sign an agreement with the county before receiving any appropriations from the new sales tax, if voters approved it in April. Metro would agree to:

• Pursue light-rail and bus-service extensions only if those expansion projects include a federal funding component and only if the agency would have enough money to operate those extensions once they’re built.

• Submit and pay for performance audits of its management and operations every three years, conducted by an external auditor, besides annual financial audits.