Saint Louis: the quiet dawn of regionalism?

A view of the future?
A View of the Future? Image by Andrew J. Faulkner.

St. Louis County approves Proposition A for increased funding of the Metro system by a 62.91% majority

"This is not a political issue," said Metro President and Chief Executive Robert Baer. "This was a matter of the whole region coming together — the north, south, central, west."
-- St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

While the passage of Proposition A, a ½-cent sales tax in St. Louis County, is certainly a testament to the tireless efforts of transit campaigners and the effort Metro has put into recuperating its image, the important story here is the hopeful emergence of a new regional consciousness.

The St. Louis region has long been plagued by intense political fragmentation, and the saga of Metro funding reflects this situation. Unlike cities such as Denver, Saint Louis has not been able to enact a Transportation District to provide funding for operations. Rather, in a state that ranks 35th in transit funding, Metro was forced to turn to the relatively unsustainable method of sales taxes to generate operating revenue. Hamstrung by local political realities, Metro was forced to win separate referendums in both the independent city of St. Louis and in St. Louis County. While St. Louis city passed their ¼-cent in 1998, it took three referendums for the county to pass the other part. The situation of Metro was made more dire by the 1998 loss of $22 million in federal funds with the federal change from operations to capital funding, and the 2008 decision by St. Louis county to change the transit/road tax percentage from 63%/37% to 50%/50%. Throughout this time period, the county rejected sales tax referendums twice.

This year has been different. The coalition supporting Proposition M included John Nations -- the mayor of the municipality synonymous with the perceived values of St. Louis county. Yet Nations has realized what many others have failed to. St. Louis county is now fully developed and greenfield development is far outside its ambit. While disconnection from Saint Louis city benefited the County's edge cities twenty years ago, those aging municipalities must now rely on their infrastructure for competitive advantage. Without connectivity, the municipalities of St. Louis County will not be able to avoid becoming the victim of the same job migration to far-flung greenfield development that created them in the first place. This Metro vote marks the first noteworthy step towards regional functionality; hopefully some day April 6, 2010 will be understood as the first corrective to a much closer vote that happened on August 22, 1876.

With the emergence of spring in the past week, I cannot help but cast the current situation in terms of Luke 8:5-8. St. Louis County is the seed on rocky ground; if it doesn't put down roots it will wither. County residents chose to disregard the divisive arguments of a few and to establish the roots of a new growth. Hopefully it will be the first of a long series of such changes.

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