On August 5th, Missouri voters will decide the fate of the proposed $6B state sales tax increase to fund transportation projects. Once presumed to be headed for the November ballot, Governor Nixon moved the vote to August. That gives about 10 weeks to consider what would be the largest tax increase in state history.
The change means East-West Gateway (the area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization) is now short on time to develop a strategic project list. The EWG preliminary list was released just last week. For better or worse, St. Louis area counties are on their own. The city is its own county, and Mayor Francis Slay current serves as Chair of the EWG Board of Directors.
Now the city has its list of possible projects (below). Based on 2013 sales tax allocation, the city would receive 16% of the estimated $1.5B funding for the St. Louis area, or $235M. This list obtained by nextSTL is not prioritized, but is said to equal that $235M mark. It’s unclear how costs for a project like the BRT line from Chesterfield to downtown St. Louis would be allocated.
Locally, and statewide, it anyone’s guess if there’s support for a sales tax increase to pay primarily for highways. Due to special taxing districts, sales tax in some parts of St. Louis City reaches 12%. In April of last year, St. Louis City and County passed a 3/16% sales tax increase to fund the Arch grounds and various parks projects. That tax is estimated to cost city taxpayers $162M and county taxpayers $634M over its 20-year life.
A sales tax is regressive as it is applied uniformly, as opposed to a progressive tax. This means the 25% of City of St. Louis residents who do not have access to a car pay the same tax as the 40 mile a day commuter, when buying the same goods.
Whether or not it passes, voters are being presented with this choice because of a failure in political leadership and fiscal responsibility. State lawmakers could choose to toll Interstate highways to pay for their maintenance. They could also vote to raise the gas tax, currently near the lowest in the nation. The last time it was increased, this year’s college freshmen were not yet born. The politically expedient decision is the deceptively seemingly benign “let the voters decide”.
Because the proposed sales tax can be used on transit, bicycle/pedestrian, and other projects, it has won some level of appeal in unlikely places. In Missouri, expenditure of gas tax revenue is currently limited to roads and highways. In a state that starves non-highway transportation projects, millions in funding, anything in funding, has appeal.
However, the current list of projects compiled by EWG is stunningly outdated, a page from 1950s Urban Renewal that posits more and better highways as the key to urban and metro area economic growth. In St. Louis (and elsewhere) we have more than half a century of compelling evidence to the contrary.
The region may be turning a corner in rhetoric, if not planning. St. Louis County’s strategic plan, titled “Imagining Tomorrow”, cites three areas of focus; “Invest in youth, Prepare for an aging population, Address the consequences and cycle of poverty.” The $1.63B for highways in the EWG project list addresses none of these.
The city’s list may be more transit and bicycle/pedestrian oriented, but with the lack of an established, articulated urban vision, it’s impossible to know how the list melds with the city’s Comprehensive Sustainability Plan, the OneSTL initiative, Metro’s regional plan, and other visions.
In the “high priority” category, the EWG list is 91% dedicated to highway projects. The largest transit project is the North City Bus Rapid Transit line at $47M, or 2.9% of St. Louis area projects. When MoDOT asked district residents what they wanted to see, they were told 60% wanted to simply maintain existing roads, while 40% would like to see expansion. For transit, the numbers were 59% for transit expansion, and 41% for maintenance. For listed high priority highway projects, 96% is allocated to “improvements” and other changes beyond maintaining existing infrastructure.
More than any other county, the City of St. Louis carries the burden of building infrastructure for others. This makes funding projects via sales tax even more troublesome for the already economically challenged city. It’s not yet clear if the city sees real opportunity in the sales tax to fund otherwise moribund projects, or if it is simply being prudent in planning for possibility of the ballot measure passing.
Due to its regressive nature, avoidance of applying costs to users, and volatility, a sales tax remains a terribly misguided way to fund highways, and some transportation projects. The current state of affairs is a manufactured crisis brought about by overbuilding and long underfunding infrastructure. Continuing to build unsustainable highways will soon lead to yet another funding “crisis”.
The city’s list appears more heavily tilted toward transit and bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure, though without project cost estimates, the proportion of funding allocated to each is unclear. We’re told that the list will be made public shortly, and it will be interesting to hear how the city chooses to frame its position on the issue. Asked by nextSTL to confirm the authenticity of the list below, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s office declined to comment.
City of St. Louis transportation sales tax project list:
- St. Louis Streetcar—full phase I with streetscape improvements as outlined in 2013 feasibility study
BUS RAPID TRANSIT
- Bus Rapid Transit—Build BRT route connecting to downtown via West Florissant/Natural Bridge
- Bus Rapid Transit—Build BRT route on I-64, Chesterfield to Downtown
- Goodfellow—Natural Bridge to I-70 – Complete Streets
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive—Grand to Kingshighway – Complete Streets
- Grand Center—Washington Avenue from Theresa to Sheldon Concert Hall – Complete Streets
- 7th and 8th Streets—Improvements Pine to Spruce – Complete Streets
- North Grand—Natural Bridge to I-70 – Complete Streets
- Natural Bridge—Kingshighway to Grand – Complete Streets
- Vandeventer—Forest Park Avenue to I-44 – Complete Streets
- MetroLink Station connections—Delmar/Forest Park-DeBaliviere MetroLink Station intersection, bike and pedestrian connections from distressed neighborhoods
- MetroLink Station—Laclede’s Landing MetroLink Station improvements
- Transit Centers—Build three additional transit centers throughout St. Louis County and St. Louis City
- North Riverfront Loop—Trestle: North Riverfront Loop, including Trestle Build Out, Trestle to Downtown via 14th Street. Trestle connections in North Side Regeneration and North Riverfront Phase II
- Midtown Loop—Connect portions of St. Vincent Greenway, Forest Park, BJC Campus, Cortex District, SLU, Grand Center, Old Hodiamont streetcar line (westernmost portion of Chouteau Greenway)
- River des Peres Connector—Connects Shrewsbury MetroLink, Carondelet Park via Christy Greenway, Mississippi River/River des Peres confluence, and Jefferson Barracks
- ADA—Sidewalk improvements along city arterials
- Laclede’s Landing—Park improvements and pedestrian connections under MLK Bridge, 1st St., 2nd St., Morgan St., and Laclede’s Landing Boulevard, including traversable streets and ADA sidewalks
- Chouteau Greenway—Cerre Street under EB I-64 traffic lanes and a cycle track on south side, bike/ped bridge through I-64/I-70/I-44 interchanges from Cerre to Arch grounds
ROADS AND HIGHWAYS
- I-64—Construct new 22nd Street Interchange and adjacent street work
- I-70 at Broadway—Extend exit ramp and add right turn lane
- Branch Street—Branch Street improvements, I-70 exit to Mississippi River levee, including sidewalks and bike lanes
- Route H—Reconstruct Hall Street (Route H), East Grand to Riverview Drive, address flooding issues
- Grand Boulevard—Repave Grand Boulevard from Steins to Hall Street, connecting I-70 to I-64 to I-44 to I-55, improve emergency vehicle travel and access, plus sidewalk upgrade and ADA
- Hampton—Repave Hampton/Germania from Eugene to Oakland, connecting I-64 to I-44 to I-55, improve emergency vehicle travel and access, plus sidewalk upgrade and ADA
- Tucker Boulevard—Improvements including road diet and median enhancements from Washington to Chouteau
- Municipal River Terminal—North Dock, reinforce tie back systems
*The City of St. Louis released their official project list (below) Monday, June 2nd: