Metro supporters getting ready for another try at tax measure

WU, Sam Fox give big bucks

| Copy Chief
A Metrolink train pulls in to the Big Bend station in late August. (Matt Mitgang | Student Life)

A Metrolink train pulls in to the Big Bend station in late August. (Matt Mitgang | Student Life)

The St. Louis County government said on Monday that a transit sales tax measure similar to Proposition M could appear on the county ballot this April, as a coalition of transit advocates ramps up its campaign efforts.

The coalition, which includes Washington University, seeks voters’ approval of a ballot measure that would boost funding for Metro operations and future expansion, and enable the agency to restore all of the transit service it slashed in March. University officials said on Monday that the school would fully support such a ballot measure.

“We’re going to be supportive of any initiative that improves mass transit in our region,” Assistant to the Chancellor Rob Wild said.

The measure would be a retry of sorts, as last November county voters rejected Proposition M, a half-cent sales tax increase that supporters said would have prevented the cutbacks.

The University has made the largest contribution to the campaign so far, giving $25,000, the same amount the school gave to last year’s campaign for Proposition M, which the University and Student Union Senate both endorsed. University trustee Sam Fox, a Republican fundraiser who served as the U.S. ambassador to Belgium in the Bush administration, has given $10,000.

County officials have not made any final decisions on a ballot measure, including when it would appear, said Mac Scott, spokesman for County Executive Charlie Dooley. Scott added that officials have been actively discussing the idea and that Dooley fully backs another sales tax measure.

“He’s entirely supportive of it,” Scott said. “We understand that public transportation is vital to the growth and prosperity of this region.”

State and federal funding over the summer helped Metro restore over half of its slashed service in August. But because the money runs out in May, Scott said April would be the most opportune time for the election.

What is also unclear is whether county voters would support another ballot measure after they rejected Proposition M. Proponents are emphasizing better organization and a more grassroots approach this time, largely because the election would be in an off year.

“One of the keys is making sure that your supporters are registered to vote and actually show up in an April election, when Barack Obama is not on the ballot,” said Tom Shrout, executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit.

Details on how the campaign would play out are still scarce. Rose Windmiller, director of state relations and local government affairs at the University, said local organizations and advocates will meet at the University on Thursday to hash out campaign plans and strategies.

Last November’s Proposition M campaign saw several University officials and SU members campaign on campus, asking students to support the measure. Students voted overwhelmingly in favor of the measure, which failed by 3 percent.

Senior Melissa Legge, a supporter of boosting Metro funding, said the University’s decision to contribute to this year’s campaign “makes a lot of sense.”

“Wash. U. clearly benefits a lot from public transportation we have,” said Legge, a member of Green Action. “We have five MetroLink stops on four campuses and several bus lines.”

It also makes sense, Legge said, because “public transportation is a pretty big transportation part of the [University’s] sustainability plan.”

Many students, including Legge, have already expressed support of any ballot measure that were to appear in April. 2008 graduate Liz Kramer and several current and former students were among those who threw a prom on MetroLink trains on Oct. 23 in celebration of the St. Louis transit system. Although the event was not meant to be political, student attendees still hoped that it would indirectly encourage people to vote for another sales tax measure.

The current Student Union administration has said that supporting Metro is one of its priorities. Student Body President Jeff Nelson said SU has not endorsed putting another sales tax on the ballot but would consider doing so.

“I think we’d have discussions about it. It’d be debated,” Nelson said. “I think a lot of people would be in favor of it.”

Transit advocates have said that a sales tax increase would likely be Metro’s only hope getting the funding it needs to restore full transit service. If another ballot measure were to fail, more extensive service cuts could be needed, they have said.

The chances of another dose of state money have faded, as lawmakers must figure out how to close a general revenue gap of at least 10 percent in the next legislative session. State Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, vice chairman of the Missouri House Budget Committee, said in October that declining tax revenues are to blame and that new funding items have been all but ruled out.

To go on the ballot, a sales tax measure would have to go through County Council. Councilwoman Barbara Fraser, D-University City, said a bill would pass the council handily, though she did not know when one would be introduced.

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