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Commentary: Vote 'no' on Prop A, the one-half cent sales tax increase for Metro

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 23, 2010 - St. Louis County has a population of roughly a million people. According to the U.S. Census, only 10,300 St. Louis County residents use mass transit -- be it MetroLink, bus or Call-A-Ride. Fewer than half of that number use MetroLink. By contrast, 98 percent of St. Louis County commuters regularly use roads, not mass transit.

So, if Prop A passes, you'll wind up paying for a mass transit system that you don't use -- and don't need.

Over time, Metro has slashed bus routes dramatically, taken on massive debt and repeatedly asked for tax increases, including a half-cent sales tax proposal, Proposition A, on the April 6 ballot in St. Louis County.

One wonders: Where is all the money going, and how on earth can an organization be so poorly managed?

Metro claims it has a budget shortfall of $50 million. However, there's no real way to confirm this since Metro doesn't allow the public to look at its books. Metro has claimed that half of that new money would go toward making Metro solvent, and half would go towards expanding MetroLink and bus services.

But here's the question that nobody is asking: If Metro is currently running in the red and cannot successfully manage its finances now, how can it possibly manage to expand MetroLink without running into more debt and red ink?

Every time Metro has expanded MetroLink, it has spent more than it takes in. As a result, it has been forced to cut bus routes and hurt the poor, who overwhelmingly rely on buses, not MetroLink. The most recent MetroLink expansion -- the cross-county extension into Shrewsbury -- ran $126 million over budget. And since Metro made the disastrous decision not to apply for federal funding assistance on the project, St. Louis County taxpayers will eventually pay $1.1 billion, including debt service payments, for an eight-mile stretch of light rail. Question for Metro brass: How many buses and bus routes could have been purchased for that same $1.1 billion?

How can Metro demand more money when it hasn't proven to voters it can successfully manage itself? Metro proponents repeatedly suggest Metro is given excellent oversight -- indeed, better oversight than any agency in St. Louis County. So with all of this oversight, why are they $50 million in the red?

But Metro isn't serious about improving itself through sound management. Metro has demonstrated it doesn't care about its employees or the poor who are negatively affected by its colossal mismanagement. Metro has proven it isn't willing to do the little things it takes to get back into the black ink.

For example, Metro offers thousands of free parking spaces for commuters who drive to MetroLink stations and then ride Metrolink into work. Former mayor Vince Schoemehl -- now on the board of Metro -- admitted on the Charlie Brennan show on KMOX that Metro hadn't even considered charging for parking. Some estimates put the yearly revenue of such a tactic at $4 million-$6 million. And there are a dozen of such improvements that could be made. Instead, Metro is lazily and arrogantly demanding more from St. Louis County families.

And Metro's accountability problems don't end there. Metro has repeatedly claimed it has a plan for expansion. Yet the "plan" doesn't contain simple information such as where a new light-rail route would be built and by what date. Point is, Metro, East-West Gateway and the county have had 20 years to develop a real plan that demands accountability. They do a nice song and dance, but the fact is, this group has zero interest in allowing the public to decide where or if the next light rail route will be built.

The "Metro bailout" was already put to voters in 2008, and they rejected it. Only reason it's on the ballot now is that special interests are paying for a campaign that will ultimately subsidize their businesses. To that end, I think it's perfectly reasonable to hold Metro accountable.

Metro's campaign to extract a new massive sum from St. Louis County families is full of doublespeak, meaningless platitudes and false promises.

If voters are serious about improving mass transit in St. Louis, the first step isn't to enable reckless spending and mismanagement, but to demand reform. Voting NO on Prop A on April 6, is the first step toward reforming Metro and saving mass transit in St. Louis.

John Burns is the spokesman for Citizens for Better Transit. 

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