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.

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.

Downtown Retail to be Given a Shot in the Arm

Residential development downtown received a major boost with the opening of Schnuck's Culinaria last year as the first supermarket downtown since 1997. While the development of that store resulted in the loss of a significant work of architecture, many hoped that the trade would lead to much more investment. Fortunately this has been the case. Cordish Development announced today its new plans for the Ballpark Village site. Ballpark Village, the site of Edward Durrell Stone's Busch Stadium one, was originally proposed to be a multi-story mixed use office development. Since those plans have fallen through it has sat as a muddy lot and as a combination parking lot and softball field.

Ballpark Village today. Photo by -kj.

While Ballpark Village has been a blight on a vibrant and urban scaled part of the city, the plans announced today by Cordish and the City of St. Louis to locate a Wal-Mart Superstore there hold promise for the similar revitalization of the rest of downtown. Wal-Mart has the ability to fill many needs of urban loft dwellers such as family size packages of macaroni, cheap yarn, and health insurance. When reached for comment Trent Miller, director of strategy for Wal-Mart, stated:
We here at Wal-Mart have long coveted a location in St. Louis City. At this point it is the largest city the United States without a Wal-Mart of Sam's Club. We're excited to partner with the city to bring cheap merchandise and lower prices to all. Furthermore, we think that, given our dependance on inexpensive Chinese labor, we will be a great contributor to the economic future of the City of St. Louis and will support you as pursue your China Hub project.

When reached for interview by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Barb Geisman, deputy mayor for development, discussed the infrastructure upgrades that had lured Wal-Mart.
This is another great example of a great corporation moving to a great location in the city of St. Louis. As everyone knows highways bring development. Some people say that St. Louis doesn't do anything new. Well this is the first time in the country where a freeway exit ramp will directly connect into a Wal-Mart parking lot. Of course we will have to demolish one or two of those Cupples Station warehouses to realign the 9th street exit, but it's been a year since the Brentwood interchange was reconfigured, and if there's anything this city needs, it's more big box stores directly connected to our highway infrastructure.

A unnamed analyst for the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association noted that the Wal-Mart plan was extremely popular in South County focus groups:
Frankly, if we're going to have a successful downtown we have to cater to South County. Residents of Arnold and Lemay are the best barometer of our regional success. They were smart enough to leave when things got bad and their return will mean the city is back. Currently these people are afraid to set foot in the city. By building them a Wal-Mart we can give them something comforting and by connecting it directly to 40 and 55 they don't actually have to drive through the city.

Proposed rendering of Ballpark Village Wal-Mart.