Saint Louis: More Progressive than Denver?*

* For the time-being anyway.

Many times, when dealing with intractable problems it is impossible to resist succumbing to the grass-is-greener approach. In Saint Louis, during conversations with a wide array of advocates and transit professionals, the comparison to Denver is inevitable: "if we had a transit district like Denver", "Denver can expend that much per capita of transit because of their political situation", or simply "St. Louis is not Denver". I have always felt that this class of statement exist solely to obviate the responsibility for a lack of progress. Resignedness to the status quo is a protective mechanism for those who have tried and failed.

Who would have thought three months ago that someone in Denver might be saying "if only we had the political courage to support transit like Saint Louis"?

Today Yonah Freemark broke news that transit leader Denver has scuttled plans to approach voters in its Regional Transit District for a sales tax increase. It appears that in the current economy, with heightened pressure from the Tea Party and anti-tax crowd and falling revenue from existing taxes Denver politicians would not risk even putting a sales tax increase in front of the voters. This decision will substantially postpone the completion of the 122 miles FasTracks expansion plan until after 2042. As you might remember, the St. Louis region passed a sales tax increase last week. What can we take away from the situation in Denver?
1. Sales taxes should not form the financial foundation of something as critical as a transit system.
I am inclined to share this view with zealous anti-government critics. As regressive taxes, sales taxes and are extremely vulnerable to economic instability. While there is no golden bullet, relying on sales taxes is dangerous. Other options are not much better: income taxes would be difficult to justify given that those who would contribute the most typically use the system the least, and property taxes place the burden solely on landowners. State appropriations vary based on the political breeze and uneducated rural legislators can easily hold urban areas hostage.

If transit plays as vital role in regional economies as the supporters of Prop M claim, then the least bad single tax option might be a corporate earning tax solely devoted to the development of economic infrastructure and, specifically, transit.

2. Regional Transit Districts are not a panacea for funding troubles.
At a recent City Affair panel discussion the executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit seemed to indicate that the establishment of a bi-state regional transportation district would solve Metro's perennial financial woes. Denver now proves that my skepticism was founded. Casting a broader net adds some stability, but a broader geographic area of support does not change the fundamental unsustainability of the system.
The ideal revenue stream should combine a mix federal grants [new infrastructure] with corporate taxes [for operations], and sales and income taxes [for citizen buy-in].

Only when a balanced funding mechanism is in place for the region can a transit district be successful.

3. Transit organizations have a greater onus to be responsible and transparent in decision-making and operations than charitable organizations .
A commenter to the story condenses the anticipated public opposition to a .4% sales tax increase:

"Nobody trusts the RTD ... The former head got $3 million in compensation ... There's no oversight ... The proposed expansions don't make sense."

These comments should be eerily familiar to anyone following the coverage in Saint Louis. Whether these reactions are the result of true problems or a post-rationalization based on antagonism to transit, it is clear that the RTD must do a better job explaining itself to the public. While Metro in Saint Louis has made great progress in this regard, it cannot afford to rest either.

As Freemark writes:

Denver could learn a lesson or two from its Midwestern peer [Saint Louis]: A bad economy does not improve anyone’s mobility, nor does it eliminate voter hopes for the future of their region. Deciding not to hold a vote this year amounts to giving up on FasTracks’ quick completion without even trying to save it.

8 reactions:

Tom Duda said...

As the above-linked "zealous anti-government critic," I definitely take issue with your characterization of me. The Post-Dispatch called me a "local activist." KWMU called me a "Slay critic." Those labels were hardly problematic, and I let them go unacknowledged. Yours, however, simply exposes you as a mouthpiece for Slay or a member of the Vanguard Cabinet. (Do you see how labels are nettlesome, when you do not know the person who are describing?)

As I said before on Twitter, sales tax is neither progressive nor sustainable. I think that it would behoove you to explain to your readers how my expressed viewpoints and distinct preference for a regional gas tax somehow characterize me as "anti-government." It just does not make any sense [to me]. Your conflation of those who run government with government itself strikes me as troubling and perhaps indicative of a general lack of precision in your sourcing and use of language.

Cheers to your next City Affair!

Andrew J. Faulkner said...

I believe you would agree that you are zealous (or to be more accurate in semantics perhaps ardent). The phrase anti-government might be a slight mischaracterization, but what current local government programs have you recently supported? Surely there is some good in the Saint Louis region? If not, why did you move back here? I think in the end this comes down to a disagreement about how to effect change. I worry that by loudly picketing political figures and decrying their "machiavellian schemes" you cast yourself as the crazy prophet in the desert and undermine the value in your work.

Effective leadership relies on a positive message of change and not just criticism. To advance a message you must win trust (if not acceptance) at both a grass roots level and with the establishment itself. Is the city government often wasteful, corrupt, and regressive? Yes. Who elected them? Your fellow citizens. How can you take the criticism and funnel it into the principled, experienced, and competent political opposition this city obviously needs? The ball is in your court and locusts and honey can only take you so far.

As for funding transportation solely from the gas tax- given the fight for a sales tax that spreads responsibility for funding the system across the entire population, so you think that all those single car drivers would ever vote to shoulder an added burden for a transit system they claim does not effect them? Yes, from a conceptual point of view it makes more sense, but the political reality, both here and elsewhere, proves otherwise. But if you want to lobby the state legislature to divert a portion of the existing gas tax to transit I certainly won't mind. After all, my point in the post is that funding should come from a diversified pool of sources: gas, sales, income, corporation.

Tom Duda said...

Have I ever said that "there is [no] good in the Saint Louis region?"

Please define "locusts and honey."

Please explain to me how you arrived at your understanding of "the political reality, both here and elsewhere."

Please help me to understand the function of City Affair. Also, help me to understand why City Affair's demographics do not represent this City's demographics.

I oppose that which is bad, while always hoping to effectuate good. Sadly, I am not age-eligible to run for local office.

I moved back here, because I did not have anywhere else to go, but before doing so I made a conscious decision to never remain silent about the oppression advanced by those who control our political system. Again, your conflation of the persons in office and the powers of their offices suggests to me that you have nary a clue as to how government functions.

Please help me to understand where you arrived at the quote, "machiavellian schemes." I did a search of my site and, as I expected, I did not find that term or any term remotely like it.

Please describe to me the contexts in which I "loudly picket[] political figures." A $400 million TIF that seeks displace thousands? Hmmm, that's the only instance I can recall.

Yes, I agree that we are most definitely not on the same page and most definitely not working toward the same goals. I find laughable your insistence that a sales tax increase is progressive. Your worldview is beyond incomprehensible to me. For what do you "exquisite[ly] struggle?"

Finally, why are you such a jerk to me? All of a sudden you got very precise with your use of language--I'm "ardent" but not "zealous?"

Look, I am happy to offer an alternative perspective of life in St. Louis City, and I believe that my blog provides a necessary space where alternative voices can be heard and affirmed. Politically, I doubt that you and I would ever be able to come together in pursuit of a common goal. You want to tax the poor, and I want to tax the rich.

I'm always open to revising my opinions, and I would very much love an opportunity to meet and discuss our different views. Somehow, though, I sense that you are incapable of interrogating the concept of difference.

Tom Duda said...

Two final points:

Your "worry" about me is offensive and unwelcome.

94.660 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri authorized the sales tax approved by Prop A; I wish that the statute's references to a "sales tax" could somehow read to instead implicate the gas tax. My preference does not foreclose an array of funding sources for Metro.

I take umbrage at your symbolically violent efforts to fabricate statements that you then attribute to me. Don't talk about what you don't know.

Andrew J. Faulkner said...

I agree with you about statute 94.660. Nor did I ever call a sales tax progressive (see the post). I am not in favor of taxing the poor; I just note that it is a hard political sell to tax the rich for transit that they sadly claim they don't need. Therefore there must be a balance between supporting transit with funding from all sectors of society (sales tax: higher burden on poor, more value from rich) and those who can afford more (property tax/corporate tax/progressive income tax)

I just don't believe the call to vote against Prop A that you issued on twitter (solely because of the regressive nature of the tax) was warranted. I believe that to be cutting off the nose to spite the face.

Now that Prop A has passed how do we position to create a balanced and non-regressive funding stream? So many transit authorities rely on a combination of sales taxes and direct state-level subsidy. To move metro to a better position than that might shift it into the upper echelon of such agencies. Since you know more about government than I do, what about developing a plan of action and creating a coalition to support and sell it? That would be using criticism to a productive end.

You're right, I don't know you. I simply know you by your blog and your twitter feed. While the former is generally balanced and contains some superb research and exposes, the latter is often bitterly critical and unproductive and led to my characterization in the post. In my last comment I was just making the point that Obama has proved: pragmatics and positive vision are often more successful than just criticism. Take that or reject it, it's up to you.

Thank you for presenting an alternative vision. Here's to hoping it gains some traction.

Andrew J. Faulkner said...

If you have a concern with City Affair please contact us directly. There are 10 members on the steering committee and we are always trying to reach out and get new members and solicit new topics. We met 3 times about the Northside project (more than any other topic in 2 years) and met twice in ONSL/STL Place. If you can get people that "reflect this city's Demographics" to discuss wonkishly particular urbanist topics for two hours on a thursday night, we'd love your help because believe me we're trying.

Tom Duda said...

I really have issues with the "urbanist" label, but that's another story.

I see what you're saying about the post; I unfairly stated that you support regressive taxes.

An online persona is as performative as they come. Constructive is relative. Sometimes, I think that there is value in simply making clear the fact that one disagrees with a hegemonic view or discourse. I would never want to judge your actions as either "constructive" or not constructive. I am disappointed that you choose to do so with mine.

Discussion, though important, is not always fulfilling. We choose to act in different ways, though, which is hardly a reason for either of us to delegitimate the other. Disagreements, however, are totally fair to express.

As I also Tweeted, I think that the only solution to the state funding component would be legislation, either through the Missouri House and Senate or as a ballot initiative, that codifies a percentage requirement that every dollar spent on road maintenance and construction have a set-aside for public transit agencies. In fact, it might even be possible to expand the number of communities in the state that provide transit service if there were a formula that guaranteed a certain amount of transit money to counties with smaller populations. We are all in Missouri together, as I like to say.

On the matter of rejecting Proposition A, I heard your specific criticism before; I just don't believe in sales tax, though, so I could never support it, regardless of what it purportedly funds. I voted against sales taxes for parks and even for public safety.

I found much of the pro-A argumentation lacking in persuasiveness. In fact, I found it distressing that the argument was made that a failure to pass A would result in draconian service cuts.

The decision to cut service is a separate decision by the Metro Commissioners. The decision to fund certain municipal programs necessarily precludes funding other priorities. My position always was and still is that the failure of Prop A would not as a consequence reduce service. The failure of municipalities that benefit from and believe in Metro to fund transit according to its high level of social and economic priority would cause the service reductions.

If I understand it correctly, the City of Chesterfield directly contracted with Metro in 2008 to provide service after the MetroBus route to Chesterfield Valley was threatened with elimination. I never saw an explanation for why other communities could not do the same.

lbellbrown said...

ok finally figured out the wifi login and all this profile hoopla to register at Google and then at JS-kit to register here cuz WTF. Now I see lots of long back n forth on Duda, but he nailed it in ONE with his blog name. NOT MY MAYOR. very popular sentiment amongst us around Pruitt-Igo and points north who voted against Slay,(or FOR Irene or FOR Maida) in the last election. Hard to imagine Duda against gov't per se when he was clearly out particiapting and door-knocking for the primary challenger. a lot of you raised on Bush-Clinton-Bush are drinking the TeaParty koolaid thinking a plain old retail sales tax for a core govt function is progressive. I guess you think that Obama is one too . dude is well to the right of Jimmy Carter, and just passed NIXON's health plan. I remember Nixon, not a progressive. Don't get me wrong, I can die happy with a black man as MY PRESIDENT. I am his bonafied base and will be turning y'all out HARD in 2012. I'm fine with "pragmatic" moderate left-right kumbaya ways with a sharp eye on the election calendar. Michelle in the WH is making it up to me. But I'd go doorknocking with Duda to see Obama primaried from the LEFT from the LEFT. WTF is up with the new homebuyer tax credit? It is a feel-good shortterm solution that is buying middle-class white votes with bad policy by showing them the money is not just being spent on "those people". See how easy that was? doing the right thing the wrong way is good intentions, not good govt. Duda can hate all over a particular govt in power and still be working his gay ass off for a better one. Maybe even one that would let him get married or join the army. But you think a bitchy tweet or two makes him an anarchist? Hate to tell you "son, you sound like a republican" complaining about liberals when republicans were in office. Yr putting it out that criticizing a regressive tax, or staging some protests at a tax hearing on a TIF, or criticizing a hated, venal politician like Slay is anti-govt, instead it is a core value of our form of govt. we didn't invent criticism of govt, but we put the right to do it into some black-letter LAW. (I'm not Lee Bell for real, but you should buy his brisket, and if you don't know who or where that is, you have no call to imply that black folks don't have the stamina to argue politics. Don't pretend theres any other way to read that last shot about yr city affair group. That was so clueless I'm going to pretend I did not read it, and suggest you delete it toutsuite before anyone else does. Tried to register as WTF PRUITT IGOE to give you a CLUE.)

Post a Comment