Dooley urges tax hike to expand MetroLink

Deadline to put sales-tax hike on February ballot is Nov. 27

By BURKE WASSON

As County Executive Charlie Dooley is proposing a countywide half-cent, sales-tax increase to expand MetroLink with an eye toward north county or west county, south county will remain disconnected from the light-rail system.

For that reason, 6th District County Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, is uncertain whether his district’s voters have a good reason to vote in favor of the proposal if it is placed on the Feb. 5 ballot.

“Why would we want to vote for it when it’s not going to help us any?” Campisi said.

But County Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls believes south county residents have ample reason to support the proposed sales-tax increase because the expansion of MetroLink would connect south county to increasing job opportunities in west county and north county.

“You don’t have to have the train come to you,” Earls said. “You could go to the train … You have an extension that’s available in Shrewsbury, which people that live in south county … could easily access the end of the train that would ultimately end up at jobs in the Westport area. So where we’re proposing to put the train out toward the west is where the greatest concentration of jobs are in St. Louis County. So what we’re trying to make available for those folks in south county is a way to use transit to get to and from their job through the Shrewsbury station that’s already there.”

As proposed, half of the proposed half-cent, sales-tax increase would go toward improved maintenance of existing MetroLink lines and buses, which run in south county, he said.

The proposed sales-tax increase would have a 20-year sunset and generate an estimated $75 million to $80 million per year for Metro operations in only the county and not the city of St. Louis. The deadline for the County Council to place the proposal on the Feb. 5 ballot is Nov. 27.

Because improvements would be done on strictly county lines, Earls said commuters who live in south county and work in other areas of the county would benefit from extending MetroLink to Westport and Florissant.

“What the Metro folks have done now is they’ve re-established their bus-line services that provide express bus service from south county to the Shrewsbury station,” Earls said. “So what this really is is a total system. It’s not just about the train. It’s about a combination of the trains and the buses that provide people with a very broad range, a very broad footprint of where they can travel through the county in public transit.”

While Westport and Florissant are being eyed as destinations for expansion, Earls said it is not out of the question for south county to be connected to the Shrewsbury line in the future.

“We’ve not completely discounted the opportunity to put a rail further into south county from Shrewsbury,” Earls said. “That is south county there, south of (Interstate) 44.

“But the real issue is where should we go next? And it’s because of the concentration of jobs in and along the route that leads from Clayton kind of in a wide arc out to Westport. There are 35,000 jobs existing in Westport alone. So when you have that kind of concentration of jobs up through there … there’s a great deal of opportunity along that. The land use is already industrial and commercial use. And the real opportunity for major expansions and reinvestment in those areas is to put more jobs there. So that kind of land use that’s there really encourages the installation of a high-density or high-intensity transportation network.”

As recently as 2004, county officials were studying a $650 million, 11-mile railway extension from Shrewsbury along the River de Peres to Butler Hill Road.

Although those plans since have been scrapped, Campisi is “hopefully optimistic” that south county eventually will be connected to the existing light-rail system and reap some of the business opportunities that county officials anticipate Westport and Florissant will enjoy.

“I think it ought to be helping south county,” Campisi said. “We had sent people out a couple years ago and had taken committee meetings and public meetings and that sort of thing. And they even had different routes already picked out to bring it down into south county. You know, I’d have to read more about what they’re going to do up there (in Westport and Florissant).

“But I sure wish they would come more south and finish what they said they were going to do.”

As for the proposed Westport and Florissant connections, county officials estimate they could be completed in five to seven years. Earls added that he and other officials would like to see the connection to Westport eventually branch out to Chesterfield and St. Charles County.

County officials also are hoping for a federal matching grant to enhance the proposed sales-tax increase that would help complete the Westport and Florissant extensions while improving maintenance on existing MetroLink lines and buses in the county.

Despite MetroLink’s current legal battles with the former designers of the Cross County line, Earls said he is confident that Metro is on the right track for the future and that county officials are comfortable enough with its current business practices to propose a sales-tax increase.

In 2005, Gov. Matt Blunt ordered a state audit of the Cross County project.

But that state audit has yet to be completed. Metro representatives contend that state officials never have identified all of the Metro financial records to be presented for the audit.

Despite this, Earls is confident in Metro’s financial stability and more concerned with the future than the past.

“The real bottom line there is we have confidence in Metro,” Earls said. “We believe that Metro management is in control of their activities now and for the future … We’re not as concerned about what happened three to five years ago as we are concerned about what happens in the future.”

As for why Florissant and Westport are being eyed for MetroLink expansion and not south county, Earls said the decision simply comes to economic opportunity, which he believes pales in south county when compared to west county and north county.

“The 5-mile circle right around Clayton contains 35 percent of the jobs in St. Louis County,” Earls said. “And 5 percent of them are in the Westport Plaza area alone. And there’s another 10 percent along the route out to get there. So that is one of the greatest concentrations of jobs in the St. Louis County region, which by the way is the greatest concentration of jobs in the state of Missouri.

“So we are the economic engine of the community. And what we are trying to do is provide an economic stimulus to the area … where the seeds are most likely to produce.”