If you had $1.49 billion for transportation projects, how would you spend it? Would you repair highways? Bolster mass transit service? Enhance bike lanes?
This isn’t some academic exercise. The St. Louis region’s political leaders are considering how to divide the potential proceeds from a 0.75 percent sales tax increase for transportation. These decisions could have a transformative impact on how St. Louis area residents get around.
But here’s the twist: You have to make this decision very, very quickly.
Because Gov. Jay Nixon scheduled a vote on the transportation sales tax for August, he did more than just shift the proposal’s political dynamics. He substantially sped up the timeline for choosing projects that could be funded with a sales tax increase.
Before Nixon’s decision, members of East-West Gateway were planning to submit a project list for four St. Louis area counties and St. Louis later this summer. Now, the agency has to have a preliminary draft on how to divide roughly $1.49 billion worth of projects for a 10-year period by this week and a final list approved by June 25. Then the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission will finalize the project list for the entire state on June 26.
“The decision by the governor to put this on the ballot in August has really accelerated the time frame for us to put together a listing of projects that will be used as part of the ballot,” said James Wild, assistant executive director of East-West Gateway. “It does complicate that process.”
Not everybody is happy with how the selection is proceeding.
One of East-West Gateway’s most prominent members – St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley – is upset over the truncated timeline. And while proponents of the transportation tax heralded how proceeds can be used for mass transit and bike trails, some say roads and highways will probably receive most of the funds.
Of course, there's the possibility that the tax may not pass – which would make the whole process moot. Wild said it’s all part of “a necessary evil of having to come up with the list” prior to a vote.
“[MoDOT] understands that for the campaign to move ahead, they need a listing of projects. So that when the issue comes to the ballot, that people will be able to say ‘yes, I like the projects that are being proposed here’ or ‘no, I don’t like them,’” Wild said. “And then they can make their choice on how they’re voting at that point. Ultimately, once something passes, they have to have those projects so they can lock them in and move ahead.”
Much of the discussions at East-West Gateway and around the state are predicated on voters approving the sales tax increase, which was placed on the ballot by the Missouri General Assembly.
Dave Nichols, director of Missouri's Department of Transportation, estimates that the tax would raise around $540 million every year. Most of that money – about 90 percent – would go to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission. The remaining 10 percent goes to cities and counties.
“What's at stake is the decision on where Missouri is going to move forward with relation to transportation in our future, especially in the next 10 years in Missouri – as compared to what’s happening in other states around the country,” Nichols said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio.
Nichols says his agency is working with regional organizations like East-West Gateway to compile a project list for the commission’s consideration. East-West Gateway’s board of directors includes the elected leaders of St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Charles County, Franklin County and Jefferson County.
About $1.488 billion would flow to those five political jurisdictions over the next 10 years. Some of the projects being bandied about include improvements to St. Louis’ highways, such as Interstate 70 and Interstate 270. It’s also possible that money could go to Metro’s bus and rail lines or Great Rivers Greenway’s trails.
“What we want to do is make sure we have resources necessary to build a good, strong transportation infrastructure and to improve it in every way,” said St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. “That doesn’t just include roads and bridges, but it also includes – as far as I’m concerned – mass transit. There isn’t enough money, virtually no money from the state on a regular basis, that goes to transit.”
A period of public comment on the list will also be scheduled.
“Right now it looks like the public comment period will be June 13 to 20, but we may open it up earlier if we can get a draft version of the project list ready,” said MoDOT spokeswoman Holly Dentner in an e-mail to St. Louis Public Radio. “We’re also working to schedule some open house public meetings around the state to discuss the project list with the general public.”
When this reporter asked Dooley about the transportation tax after an event at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, he said: “There’s no question about that. I think I’m in favor of letting people vote for it. That’s a good thing. So again, as we move forward, we all know we have to do something."
But about a week later, Dooley issued a statement stating the transportation tax was not a priority for his administration. And he said the sped-up timeline “puts us completely at a disadvantage, quite frankly.”
Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward, is also dismayed by the shortened decision-making process. The longtime critic of the transportation tax says forcing people to decide on transportation priorities in a matter of a couple of week is “a terrible process.”
“The region should not be in this situation that you’ve got a variety of elected officials across the region just sort of throwing projects at the board to see what MoDOT will let stick,” Ogilvie said.
But Greg Horn, MoDOT's St. Louis district engineer, said that policymakers have been going through potential projects to fund with the tax for several months. He said many of the proposals under consideration have already been reviewed and vetted, either by East-West Gateway or MoDOT.
"We have a pretty good start on this, so it’s not like we’re starting from scratch," Horn said. "So moving it up hasn’t really hurt us all that much. It’s just trying to get all the details about cost estimates done in a short time frame."
But Ogilvie has also expressed concerns that most of the money from the tax is likely to go to roadway and highway projects. Mass transit and bicycle-related projects, he predicted, will be a lesser priority.
“It’s just amazing how MoDOT continues to take the approach that funding for large highway expansions into these outlying counties is a given,” Ogilvie said. “But funding for public transit is really this special thing that’s sort of a bonus if we manage to figure it out.”
For his part, Wild said the way the process is working right now, “I don’t see it being anything grandiose” when it comes to mass transit. He also said it was unlikely that wholesale overhauls of I-70 or I-270 would be completed over the 10-year period when the tax will be in effect.
Wild said the projects will maintain and improve “what Metro already has” or improve Paratransit services in rural portions of the region. Any state funding being available for transit would be a shift in thinking, as agencies like Metro receive virtually no money from state government.
“It takes a long time to turn a big ship around, right? I think we’re in the right direction,” Wild said. “Unless there’s just a tremendous amount of money falling out of the sky, I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do these big, really wonderful kinds of transit projects that many of the people in the region want to see done.”
Asked if getting state revenue – even a smaller amount than he wanted – for mass transit would amount to a victory, Ogilvie quickly responded “no.”
“In the meantime, you have cities around the country making these investments, states supporting urban transportation needs with better public transit, states as diverse as Texas, Idaho and of course the cities on the coast,” Ogilvie said. “Why aren’t we?”
Of course, discussions on the transportation tax are moot if voters don’t approve it. And that’s not out of the realm of possibility. Even some of the strongest backers of the tax – such as state Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City – said that getting the proposal across the finish line will be tough.
So what does mean for the projects being considered by East-West Gateway? Wild says some of the projects would still move ahead.
“If these projects were able to be funded through the sales tax, that would free up money for other projects through that process,” Wild said.
East-West Gateway’s Jerry Blair, who specializes in transportation policy, said there may be other alternatives even if this tax falls flat.
“We don’t live in a static universe,” Blair said. “If MoDOT’s projections become true and if MoDOT’s program falls back to simply maintaining the system, people are going to be more acutely aware of the needs out there. In the past, because of bonding and because of stimulus, there’s been a pretty robust construction program. And I still don’t know if people realize that’s coming to an end.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads about Missouri politics.