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It's still the economy, stupid: Campaign for Prop A focuses on jobs, development

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 9, 2010 - "Jobs, jobs, jobs!"

That's the mantra of local leaders trying to convince St. Louis County voters to pass a half-cent sales tax increase to benefit Metro on April 6.

The message: Public transit is the key to attracting new jobs to the region.

The auxiliary message: You need public transit even if you don't use it because the people who serve you and your family rely on it to get to their jobs.

Regional officials are pulling out all the stops to convince county voters that even if they never ride a bus, train or Call-A-Ride, they still need public transit -- and they need to support it with their pocketbooks by passing Proposition A.

Prop A, a reincarnation of Prop M, which voters narrowly defeated in November 2008, would increase the county tax and trigger a quarter-cent sales tax that voters in the city of St. Louis approved several years ago.

Metro's importance in the region's economy is one reason familiar faces are popping up in ads touting public transit.

Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton, Community College Chancellor Zelema Harris, Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon, businessman Joe Edwards and Cardinals mascot Fredbird are a few of those proclaiming their love of public transit in the commercials Citizens for Modern Transit (CMT), a nonprofit agency that promotes rail transit, is sponsoring. The ads' message is "Transit: Some of us use it. All of us need it."

Spending restrictions

While state law prohibits public entities, such as Metro, from spending funds to support a candidate or an issue, they can spend money to "educate" the public.

But other organizations such as CMT and Advance St. Louis, the campaign for Prop A, can spend money to promote the issue -- and are.

CMT is spending $400,000 -- raised mostly from a special fundraising campaign but also from reserve funds -- on a program promoting the benefits of mass transit, Tom Shrout Jr., the agency's director, said.

What's different this time around?

The ballot's shorter -- lots shorter -- and Barack Obama and John McCain aren't hogging the limelight. This time, Prop A has center stage.

Even in '08, Prop M got 48 percent of the vote.

"While it wasn't a win, it surely wasn't as horrible a loss as it could have been," Adella Jones of Advance St. Louis said.

This time Metro backers are making sure their message is clear.

"What we found was that a lot of people didn't know they were so connected with transit until we experienced the devastating cuts in March," Jones said. Suddenly employers learned how their employees were getting to work -- or not, she added. That, she said, brought a "heightened awareness" of the value of transit to their businesses.

Metro's Call-A-Ride cuts last March came as a surprise to some who had no idea Metro runs the van service for the elderly and disabled.

Tom Shrout of Citizens for Modern Transit says voters know that Metro isn't bluffing about cuts. 

"The community understands that if this doesn't pass, there will be cuts to the transit system," he said. "The people that opposed this in '08 said, 'Oh, Metro will find the money.' But they cut a third of the system. "

Non-Metro people talking up the plan is also a plus this time, he said. "That's a material change. It was positioned in '08 as a tax to bail out Metro. Well, this is a tax to benefit the region. That's an important difference."

Metro board member Vincent Schoemehl is optimistic Prop A will pass: "People are going to be surprised by the level of support that we get in this campaign."

"Rather than doing a small campaign (advocating for passage of Prop A), where we would have a limited amount of money (to use), we decided on a bigger campaign where we educate people about the importance of transit and the effects it has on the community," he said.

This is the first time CMT has ever invested in an educational campaign, Shrout said. "We had to dip into our savings account to do it so we had to put the financial footing of the organization somewhat at risk to do this but if (Prop A) fails, it's going to be a long, hard slog for this region."

IRS limitations on how much nonprofits can spend on direct advocacy have dictated how much Citizens for Modern Transit can spend on Prop A, Shrout said. CMT contributed $30,500 to the Advance St. Louis campaign for direct advocacy, he said. That's within the 20 percent of its annual budget it can spend on advocacy. The agency's annual budget runs between $600,000 and $800,000, Shrout said. 

As of Feb. 25, Advance St. Louis had received contributions of $360,101, said Bradley Ketcher, the attorney who serves as the organization's treasurer.  Among the major contributors: Energizer ($25,000), Edward Jones ($25,000), THF Realty ($15,000).

Advance St. Louis ads will appear later this month and will urge people to vote for Prop A, said Adella Jones, spokesperson for Advance St. Louis. Jones, director of communications for Metro, has taken vacation time from her job to head communications for Advance St. Louis.

Advance St. Louis is still trying to determine how to spend "those precious dollars" to get the idea out to the voters, Jones said. While the group is looking for the "best bang for the buck," the message is "very obvious," Jones said.

"The message is jobs, jobs, jobs -- people and access to jobs. Seventy-five percent of Metro riders every day are accessing jobs," she said. "This is an economics question. This is about people who are transit dependent (and) people who are making transit choices. That always comes down to their personal economic bottom line as well." 

John Nations, mayor of Chesterfield, a suburb far from a MetroLink station, is heading up Advance St. Louis, billed as a "grass roots" campaign to promote Prop A. Nations says he's long felt public transportation is a key component in growing the region's economy.

"On voting day, either we approve it and we start restoring the service and planning to make our transit system what it needs to be -- a true regional transit system which helps us promote job growth and economic growth in the region -- or, if it does not pass, the system will be cut further," he said.

That, he said, would not only crush efforts to bring new jobs to the area, it would be devastating to those dependent on Metro to get to the jobs that are already here. And it will send 650 Metro workers to the unemployment rolls, he said.

The measure's outcome will be a determining factor in "how our region is positioned over the next generation or two," Nations said. "It's a critical issue frankly because there's simply no way to create the job base and economic base of the region without a viable regional transportation system, which the region has never had."

Metro needs the tax increase because of the dearth of state funding here, Nations said. The legislature's grant to Metro last spring was an unprecedented move.

"It is a very sad state of affairs that in Missouri, unlike other regions, the state government provides virtually no support for public transportation," Nations said.

Transit agencies in other cities receive 24 to 25 percent of their funding from their states, he said. "Unfortunately in Missouri, it's below 1 percent," he added.

Nations said voters must understand what Prop A would do.

"A lot of people are characterizing this as a MetroLink tax," he said. "It's not. It's a transit tax."

Opponents to Prop A

John Burns is a Shrewsbury construction worker who formed a group called Citizens for Better Transit to oppose Prop A last month. He said he became wary of the proposed tax hike after friends told him about it. Knowing he had past experience as a data researcher, they asked him to look at the agency's financial records, he said. He says he "just shocked" at what he saw. "They're totally insolvent," he said.

Burns says he's usually a fan of mass transit and used it frequently when he lived in Washington, D.C. But, he says, he opposes expansion of MetroLink because of its high costs and because St. Louis isn't dense enough or large enough to support a light-rail system.

He accuses Metro of "holding a gun to the voters' heads" threatening to shut down service if they don't get the tax increase.

Instead of asking for more money, Metro should be reforming its organization to manage its money better, Burns said. An increase in the tax will not solve the agency's problems and it will soon be asking voters for another tax increase, he added.

"They're going to continue to throw money down a pit," he said.

Burns claims that Metro has "cannibalized" its bus routes in favor of MetroLink expansion, which hurts people who rely on the buses.

"We're against the tax because Metro has really parsed this in a very difficult and disingenuous way," he said. Citizens for Better Transit has turned CMT's campaign slogan into "Some of us ride it. ALL of us pay for it."

Burns says Metro panders to special-interest groups, including those whose leaders appear in the CMT commercials and contribute to the campaign and that it does not have the riders' best interests at heart.

"This is about taking more of our money and giving it to their pals," the group's website says.

An increase in the the sale tax increase hurts the poor disproportionately and adding new bus routes is cheaper and faster than MetroLink, Burns said.

A major sore point for Citizens for Better Transit is Washington University, which it alleges gets thousands of passes for its students and staff at a greatly reduced rate.

In an interview, Wrighton said each year the university purchases about $2.3 million in passes for every student and qualified employee atreduced rates that Metro offers to groups and provides them to thestudents and staff without charge. "It's a program any institution canenter into," he said. 

And others do. Ray Friem, Metro’s chief operating officer transit operations, said any college or university in the area can enter into the universal pass program with the transit agency. The cost is based on student population and access to the system, he said. 

Besides Washington University, Friem said that Southwestern lllinois College has a similar program. The University of Missouri-St. Louis participates in a slightly different version of the program. 

Tom Sullivan, a longtime Metro critic, is the driving force behind Public Transit Accountability Project, another group challenging the agency. "They don't have the deficit they're claiming and they're spending money on things they shouldn't be," Sullivan said. "My point is nobody's questioning these things."

The Prop A increase would mean a 100 percent increase in revenue for Metro, he added.

Metro's vision for the future

Metro cannot use public money to advocate for a ballot issue or support a candidate for public office. But it can try to involve the public in its planning and to build support in the community for its efforts. And that's exactly what it has tried to do. Almost immediately after the November 2008 defeat, Metro officials began efforts to develop short, medium and long-range plans for the future. And, in a series of meetings last fall and this winter, the agency actively solicited public input on the area's transit needs to put together a vision of what it would like to do in the next five, 10 and 30 years.

Metro critics complain the plans were timed to coincide with the upcoming election.

"People are going to criticize us no matter what we do," said Vincent C Schoemehl Jr., former mayor of St. Louis and chairman of the Metro board of commissioners. Earlier the same critics complained that Metro did not have a plan, he said.

Prospects for success

Terry Jones, University of Missouri St. Louis professor of political science and public policy administration, says the sour economy will play less of a role in the vote than people might think.

Polls show that when someone decides on how to vote on a tax increase "what they're selling" is more important than what it will cost the voter, Jones added.

"If you think public transit is either important for you or if you don't use it you think it's important for the metropolitan area, and I make that case to you, then you say, 'Well, as long as the price reasonable, I'll vote for it.'"

Still, the economy could influence the vote, he said.

"If it comes down to a close election and even if 5 percent of the electorate says, 'I'm for public transit but the economic times are just bad and we can't afford it at the moment,' that could be enough to sink the proposal." 

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, covers transportation issues. 

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