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Commentary: For Metro and the region to go forward, stop focusing on the past

Thi article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 24, 2009 - If St. Louis is going to move forward, it has to look forward. Particularly in transportation, one has to learn from the past while getting on the train that is moving.

Too much of the public discourse about Metro comes from what I see as a "permanent nay-sayer club" that regularly complains about Metro, its problems and future. If there have been problems in the past with the execution of a public service, the solution for this group is always to abandon continued financing. To that end, people are directed to vote against any subsequent effort to expand or improve the program.

Before Metro, this group of critics took after the Metropolitan Sewer District. Its advice in that instance was to deny the required financing for maintenance and improvement. The consequence was a series of sewer collapses, long un-repaired due to funds shortage, some of which resulted in serious injury to innocent victims. In the case of Metro, construction problems on the Cross-County Extension and the subsequent litigation have become the cause du jour. The importance of the completed project - which provides enhanced transportation for the area and is experiencing rising patronage - is apparently not a proper subject for appreciation.

And so, tax support for the transit system was defeated. Those who will suffer because of the failure to adopt the additional transit tax include lower income people who will lose access to employment, businesses with jobs that will remain unfilled in the western reaches of St. Louis County and patrons who will ride crowded buses and trains.

The environmental benefits of transit service apparently do not count. And not a thought is given to the ability of the area to get federal capital transit funding promised in the stimulus package and that might also come from appropriations by an environment sensitive national administration and Congress.

Past sins must continually be punished and are not absolved by the forced departure of Larry Salci, architect of the reckless litigation, and the expiration of the terms of board members who allowed the departed Salci free rein to pursue his lawsuit. And it is well worth noting that after Salci left, Robert Baer, a retired experienced local business leader, was brought in to run Metro. After a few months on the job, he assured the public that Metro is, indeed, well managed and provides superior service to its patrons.

Critics of Metro frequently cite the presumed availability of funds from the agency's reserves. These were mischaracterized by a sloppily executed state audit that failed to take into account the requirement for working capital, the need for reserves to fund the local portion of committed capital projects and funds to protect the agency's borrowing from default in a case of national financial downturn.

The accusations of fiscal mismanagement, absent any support by the facts, are put to the lie by yearly successful financial audits and multiple awards by the Federal Transit Administration as well as a variety of industry groups.

It is important to recognize and study the trends toward expanded public transportation patronage that have occurred across the county. If St. Louis is to be part of the modern world, there must be a commitment to transportation beyond the private auto. Nearly everyone seems to grasp the economic danger to a national - and in this case local - economy when it relies on imported oil that's tied to the instability of the Mideast.

It is high time that St. Louis distances itself from self-defeating negativism and backward-focused regrets. The way forward is to build upon the triumphs of the past. To the degree that the area focuses on a few rare failings, progress and future prosperity suffer.

St. Louis must liberate itself from a backward and negative attitude and the miasma to which it leads.

John Roach is a lawyer who has long been involved in transportation and other civic issues.

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