Funding Transit in St. Louis: Another Crack at a Sales Tax

Cities and counties across the country are struggling with the funding of their transit systems in these hard times. In New York City, the payroll tax solution
touted in Albany last year has failed to meet projections. In Lorain
County, Ohio, the rejection of a sales tax by voters resulted in crippling cutbacks to that region’s bus service.

What’s at stake when transit is starved of funding? Today on the Streetsblog Network, Steve Patterson of Urban Review STL decided to lay out ten reasons voters should approve a sales tax increase that will help to  bolster transit service in the St. Louis region. A similar proposal failed in 2008, triggering massive cutbacks and layoffs. Here’s why Patterson thinks it’s so important that it pass this time:

225555036_84ebc4ee97.jpgSt. Louis County Executive Charlie "A" Dooley, August 2006. (Photo: Urban Review STL)

Tuesday April 6, 2010, voters in St. Louis County will decide the
fate of Proposition A — a 1/2 cent sales tax to match the same tax
previously approved by voters in the City of St. Louis.  Revenues would
be used to fund existing operations and expand service of our regional
public transit.

I decided to put together list of what “A” can do for the region:

  • Accelerate: strong transit will accelerate the
    trend toward filling in the core rather than pushing outward at the
    edges. This helps ensure those folks who moved to the edge won’t be
    surrounded by new construction.
  • Accessible: public transit makes going from home
    to work accessible to many. This applies to those of us with
    disabilities as well as those without access to an automobile. Getting
    our citizens to work, school is important for a strong region.…
  • Affirm: passage will affirm our commitment to a
    regional transit network. This affirmation will send a strong message
    to companies and people considering the St. Louis region as a future
    location.
  • Affordable: as we saw when service was cut back
    people couldn’t get to work. Employers need their employees at work. Our region can’t afford to not have a functioning transit system. We
    can’t afford to not pass this tax.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the St. Louis County sales tax proposition. Will voters be willing to pass it? Have proponents done a good enough job of making their case?

More importantly, what kind of long-term solutions will cities and regions be able to devise — not just to build transit networks, but to maintain and operate them after the ribbon-cutting ceremonies are long forgotten? For those of us who believe in the vital importance of public transportation systems, this is the question that needs to be solved. Your thoughts welcome in the comments.

  • JoeNYer

    What is it with the MTA that they constantly screw the people of NY/NJ/CT with these rate hikes?
    I am getting sick and tired of it, they have more money than god and can’t seem to balance a budget.

    Here’s an idea on how the people of NYC can get even with them…

    Now we know we can’t all boycott the subway or busses because “no work” then “no pay” right?
    and none of us want to waste our vacation days for some silly boycott…

    but…

    What if we (everyone in NYC and the Outer Boroughs and CT/ NJ ) picked one day a week, say Friday because the commute into the city on Friday is horrible anyway…and all of us telecommute to work? In other words, those that have remote capabilities to dial into the office using a home computer and work from home, do so? Of course it depends on your job function.

    For the record, there are thousands of us who work as Computer Professionals, Financial Industry, Executives, etc who already have this ability to dial in remotely…with all the new technologies to hold meetings online it would be a no brainer .

    Think of the massive protest and message we can send to the MTA and Port Authority thieves, and other gov’t agencies…also…
    there are monetary savings for commuters, benefits to the environment, ease of congestion on the roadways…

    more specifically:
    o think how much commuting costs people can save, by not taking the Path, Subway, or City and Express busses, for me it would be $2.25 x2 (subway but 10.50 if I take express bus service)
    + $1.30 x2 PATH
    + 1.75 highway toll
    + $10.00 gasoline (37 miles each way)
    o and gasoline savings for those who have to drive to a train station, this could bring down demand for oil .
    o and bridge and highway toll revenues that the highways wouldn’t receive…
    o and what about all that pollution and smog, this could help the environment as well.

    and here is some food for thought …

    what about doing this for the entire country…

    • what if we extended this to all 50 states…? granted not everyone has a subway system, but they do have busses, and bridges, and highway tolls…and all use gasoline? talk about making an impact…

    • and what if we did this more than just once a week?

    shall I keep going on?

    more pros:

    ok…what about monies I would save on child day care expenses for my twins…or eating breakfast or lunch which is very expensive in NY/NJ areas…
    and how much does it cost to make coffee at home instead of purchasing it…I have about 3 cups a day @ 1.50 each (furgeddabout Starbucks, she$$h …so add anoth 5 bucks to the bottom line savings…

    What about wear and tear on our bodies? Nice way to keep healty and not spread the crazy flus around.

    I am more productive with extra hours at my disposal at home, no distractions, I can start at 6-7am work until 5-6pm and get all my work done. All Employers are you listening?

    the list of benefits is infinite…

    cons? u tell me?

    – joe

  • Ian Turner

    Joe,

    Please do switch to telecommuting. Let me know how that goes for you.

    What makes you think that the MTA “more money than god”?

  • JoeNYer

    I have done it already, many times over…i love it…go to work in my PJs with a bowl of rice crispies…

    never late for meetings…we have 1866 (1800) numbers for dial in voice confrencing meetings.

    I have instant messaging, email, netmeeting, internet access(for techninal research and case support), ip-softphone connects me to my phone in the office so when someone calls my office phone it rings at my home phone number…it is just like a virtual office.
    This works with a dial-up connection via DSL phoneline, or cable …cablevision/verison FIOS, etc..

    I connect to servers all over the country…Houston, NYC, New Jersey, Ohio, Tampa, London, Canada, Far East…

    In case anyone has been sleeping…this is the information age.

    Regarding MTA…maybe if they would stop voting themselves pay raises they might come under the budget.

  • Why is a sales tax raise the solution? That seems regressive, especially when you raise the tax only to keep the current level of service.

  • BB

    If they don’t pass funding for transit their HSR should be terminated.

  • john

    Sales taxes are the wrong way to go and why subsidize St Louis Metro which builds fences around stations to discourage pedestrians by increasing walking distances? They do like building parking garages next to stations so the locals can continue to be auto dependent.

    Better idea is to implement tolls on expanded highways but since transit officials prefer them it is unlikely to be a solution. Many reasons in the Lou why the public sees few benefits to increasing taxes for more unreliable mass transit to nowhere.

  • Stephen – NYC

    The problem I have with any sort of ‘dedicated’ funding is that it never is dedicated in the way we (the public) think it will be. Our favorite example is the canard that lottery revenue goes to education. Now, the way it is actually written is that the money goes into the general fund. So much for any sort of dedication. Most people expected that the lottery money was going to be a net increase in education. It’s not.
    The next problem is that good old standby of ‘slipperly slope.’ Today it’s 1/2 cent. Next year, it’s another 1/2 cent. Pretty soon, well, you get the idea. Any concept of a dedicated source of money will soon degenerate into a sort of crack cocaine for the recipient. They’ll keep saying we want more. We need more. And they’ll say it’s only another 1/2 cent. Surely you don’t want service cuts because of a 1/2 cent? Call their bluff. Although it appears that there were cuts in St. Louis. Ok, fine. Get used to it. The MTA has their annual doomsday budget out and it calls for elimination of an entire train line as well as big cuts in service.
    As was mentioned, sales taxes are very punishing (regressive being the technical term) to low income folks who end up spending more of their money percentage-wise than higher income folks.
    We here in the 12 counties of the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District (MCTD) pay .375% as part of our sales tax. See how well it’s doing for us now? I know we’re lower than some but New York City now has a sales tax rate of 8.875% in addition to NYC income tax.
    I wish there was some sort of punishment for politicians who lie about what a given financial proposal is going to do. And I don’t mean we wait until election time. No, recall them. Maybe prison too. A super-max in Colorado sounds about right.
    As for telecommuiting on Fridays or other days, it sounds good in theory, but unless you’re paying your fare 1 round trip at a time, they get your money when you buy $20 or $30 of fares. If you skip your Friday commute, you’ll spend it on Monday. But if you tele-commute more often, then you’re talking real money. Of course, since I am unemployed my transit expenses have gone down. I’d love to work from home 15 days out of 22 (the avg # of work days in a month). Then you’d see people spending way less on commuting and then the MTA would get less money as we wouldn’t be refilling our metrocards as often.
    Tolls here in NYC already generate a surplus which is then given to the railroads with a little left over for the bus & subways. $11 for a round trip crossing on a bridge! Talk about highway robbery! And they don’t even ensure the lights all work or the road is paved. It’s so much fun driving in and out of lighted areas on roads, not knowing if you’re going to hit a pothole at 50 MPH in the dark. And they want to put tolls on the East River bridges. Gee, just keep sticking the shaft in more and more. What will it take to get someone completely outside of the MTA (and PATH) to be able to look at the books to see where the money goes? And what about having an outside auditor monitoring things from now on, cause it sure doesn’t look like either of the agencies knows how to get the most done with what they have.

  • Your first point is valid, Stephen. There is no such thing as “dedicated” funds, because the Legislature will often redirect other subsidies, so that the State’s net contribution stays the same or goes down. However, dedicated funds can work if they bring in more than what the State is currently paying out of the general fund.

    Your second point is completely uninformed. “Someone completely outside of the MTA” has been looking at the MTA’s books on a regular basis for years now, but apparently you’d rather post uninformed speculation than actually go and look it up.

    As has been said here before, the East River bridge tolls would be a good thing even if the money was all spent on hookers and blow, because it would discourage people from driving into Manhattan, an activity that currently causes a huge chunk of the city’s transportation problems.

  • There isn’t much incentive to use the Metro in St Louis. After many of the bigger businesses downtown closed, traffic went way down. Plus, parking is cheap and plentiful. I worked in St Louis for four weeks and many people said they’d never been on it. As someone else said, it’s almost as if someone designed it so people wouldn’t use it. The Grand Street stop is horribly designed, as is the stop in the Central West End, and the two stops near the mall. Once you get off, expect an unpleasant walk of a mile or so to your destination. It is useful to some people going to some places. There are people who depend on it, but I’m not sure the people of St Louis see what’s in it for them.

  • ^Hmmmm….interesting perspective. FYI, the transit tax passed OVERWHELMINGLY last night, so our Metro system will be receiving a much-needed infusion of new funds. And I’m not exactly sure who in STL you spoke with, but the fact of the matter is that rush hour trains are standing room only every single weekday morning and evening, so if the trains were designed “so people wouldn’t use them” then they have failed miserably. MetroLink is one of the most successful light rail systems in the country. It will get even better now.

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