St. Louisans, Start Your Engines

Missouri again thumbs its nose at the area's mass-transit needs

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The Missouri General Assembly has issued its customary salutation to those who care about light rail and other forms of mass transit.

That would be an outstretched middle finger -- presumably signifying "Go in peace in the middle of the road" or some such thing -- accompanied by the equally traditional allocation of nothing.

It's not that transportation isn't an important subject to our state legislators, mind you -- it's just that they have a higher calling to serve in their unofficial role as the political-action committee of the state's concrete cartel. The cartel is a nonorganization of highway contractors, unions and assorted businesses that thrives on construction of roads and bridges across the state and is a nonpartisan, equal-opportunity purchaser of politicians.

That's why the legislators ended one of their worst sessions ever -- which is saying something -- by enacting a $2.3 billion highway-bonding bill that yields them plenty of election-year goodies to fling without stooping to face the trifling detail of how they'll raise the money to retire the bonds.

From truck stop to shining truck stop, across all of beautiful outstate Missouri (and only outstate), there'll be new roads and bridges everywhere you look. By God, we'll even try to re-gravel your driveway and paint your pickup, unless that other fellow gets elected.

And who's paying for all this?

Uh, that we'll deal with next year, promises Sen. Jim Mathewson (D-Sedalia), one of many legislators curiously attired as Santa's helpers in the middle of May. And speaking of next year, that's when we'll address something called "comprehensive transportation needs," which of course includes mass transit in the cities.

Right. And you can count on a gigantic state allocation for MetroLink to be timed perfectly to coincide with the announcement of hell freezing over.

Tom Shrout -- who, as executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit, is a leading advocate of MetroLink -- is underwhelmed.

"I feel betrayed, because in 1992 we went to Jefferson City (regarding the state's infamous 15-year plan for highways) and were assured by the key players that anytime they were going to address transportation in the future, mass transit would be part of it," Shrout said Tuesday. "They've been saying the same thing ever since, but this session they go full-force on bonding for the highways and say, 'Wait until next year,' for mass transit.

"'Wait until next year' is now officially the law."

It actually would have been worse than Shrout is saying, but the slogan "Light rail? Bite my tailpipe" wasn't deemed suitable for the statutes. This isn't about waiting; it's about realizing that highway politics rule in Missouri.

Unless the FBI turns up the missing St. Louis legislative delegation by next session, it is a foregone conclusion that this metropolitan area will be going it alone if it wants MetroLink expanded from its current inadequate state. The inevitability of it all seems to be sinking in more than ever for MetroLink advocates.

Last week, Les Sterman, executive director of the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council (which governs local mass-transit policy), sounded a needed alarm: St. Louis had better think about fending for itself financially if it wants MetroLink expanded. In a downtown speech, Sterman suggested that the area consider establishing a regional transportation district that could look at a range of new funding sources -- bridge tolls, local gasoline taxes, sales taxes and others.

"If the state isn't going to step up to the plate and help us pay our transportation needs in this metropolitan area, then let us do it ourselves," Sterman told me Tuesday. "We have this huge appetite for expanding our transportation system, whether it be MetroLink or the highways, but we don't have the money. We're going to have address this."

Sterman says there's enough money in hand to fund existing plans to extend the system from East St. Louis to Belleville by next May and from the DeBaliviere area through Clayton to Shrewsbury by 2005, but after that the well is dry. MetroLink has about 40,000 riders daily, slightly ahead of original projections, but it still covers just a sliver of the region.

East-West Gateway's announced plans call for extensions south from Shrewsbury to Butler Hill Road and north from Clayton to Florissant, but Sterman says those needs are unfunded. Today, East-West Gateway's staff was expected to announce three new proposed corridors: west from Clayton to Westport; south from downtown through South City to South County; and north from downtown through North City and Riverview to St. Louis Community College's Florissant Valley campus.

But those unfunded routes would cost upwards of $2 billion, Sterman says, and federal grants are only realistically possible if a community has about a 50 percent local match. And in Missouri -- unlike Illinois and many other states -- that's where state government doesn't come in.

One possibility is to go back to the ballot box in St. Louis County this November for a quarter-cent sales tax to expand MetroLink. In 1997, city voters narrowly approved that increase, but it was handily rejected in the county (with more than 58 percent voting no).

Shrout says recent polling in the county indicates more receptiveness to a MetroLink-related increase, but he's not committing to pushing for the County Council to put it on the ballot (which it can do until Aug. 29). He's treading lightly.

"We're asking people if they think it's appropriate," Shrout says.

Well, I for one think it would be, and that -- coupled with 35 cents -- will get you a local phone call almost anywhere in St. Louis County. With the city vote in hand (apparently it need not be repeated), it makes perfect sense to take another shot at it in the county.

Since the previous defeat, the contentious expansion through Clayton into Shrewsbury has been OK'd, and the newly announced corridor plans should make county residents start seeing that MetroLink can be what it was also hoped to be: an efficient, inexpensive and environmentally sound alternative to the almighty automobile.

Will it pay for itself? No. But neither do the highways, which is why the state is going billions into debt -- before it has established the means to cover the payments -- in an effort to fund highway and bridge projects that aren't feasible with existing gasoline taxes.

Why shouldn't we invest in mass transit just as we do in the automobile? I can't think of a single reason.

I wonder whether the General Assembly could put its finger on it.

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