What’s Next for CMT and Transit in St. Louis? 7 Questions with CMT’s Tom Shrout

Now that the afterglow of the Prop A victory has dimmed a bit I sat down with Citizens for Modern Transit Executive Director Tom Shrout to get his view on the vote and what’s next for CMT and transit in St. Louis. Here's your 7 questions:

urbanSTL: Prop A pass by a significant margin, were you surprised?

Tom: Obviously we’re thrilled by not only the win, but the margin of the win. A problem that started in ’95-’96 with the ending of federal transit funding has finally been addressed. This is why we came back so quickly (with another proposition), the transit system would have been a shadow of itself.

urbanSTL: When did you know that Prop A had a good chance at passing?
Tom: Our polling showed 53% support in October. With a tax referendum you expect to lose support as the vote nears, (Prop A) was really unusual. When we started running TV ads, people started repeating the catch phrase back to me. We knew we were having an impact. (Financial) contributions picked up when TV spots started and I think it created confidence in the community that this had community backing. I was pretty confident the last month. Endorsements kept coming in and it seemed everyone wanted to support the effort.

urbanSTL: How significant was the advertising?

Tom: I think it worked. Normally as you raise money you plan to put TV ads on during the last days of the campaign. If you raise enough to pay for another day you add a day. We took a chance and did TV early. “Some of us ride it. All of us need it.” worked. We wanted to make it about transit and not Metro. When you talk about “transit” people are in favor of it. Metro still has some negative connotations. It’s about the community wanting better transit. This time we decided to work with R&R partners in Salt Lake City. This was their sixth transit tax effort and they’re now six-for-six.

urbanSTL: What about social media? How did social networking sites, blogs, Twitter, etc. affect the outcome?

Tom: Social media provided a way to mobilize pushback on Prop A critics, whether calling in to a radio program or commenting on a news story. I’ve been doing this for 22 years and CMT has 1,200 dues paying members. In 2008 there were 3,000 fans of Prop M on Facebook. We embraced Facebook and social media. We need to figure out how to convert some of them into dues paying members. I think for an April election we probably turned out a younger voter.

urbanSTL: Now that you have connected with new supporters, what can they do to continue to support transit in St. Louis?

Tom: Between big initiatives you want to keep things mobilized. I believe there’s an opportunity to change state policy on transit. There’s a desperate need in Missouri to fund highways. Part of the improvement in highways needs to be multi-modal transportation improvement, whether that’s Amtrak from St. Louis to Kansas City or something else.

urbanSTL: Are you aware that Denver’s transit agency recently decided not to ask voters to consider a transit tax?

Tom: I think they overpromised (with The 2035 Metro Vision Regional Transportation Plan) and did the same thing that Metro did in ’94. There were people at Metro then who thought they had money for everything. No one was saying, “we can build this for less.” Cities like Denver, Charlotte and Phoenix have said, “here’s a way we can manage our growth.” We’re one of the few cities in the country looking to reinvest in our urban core.”

urbanSTL: What next for CMT?

Tom: There are a number of things. We want the next MetroLink line to make sense and be built in a cost-effective manner. Too much was spent on the cross-county line. That line is certainly paying a dividend back to the community. It wasn’t money wasted, but it could have cost less. The North-South expansion is furthest along and it would appear to me that is has the most potential to attract riders, the most possibilities for development and can make a statement that downtown is the core of the region.

BRT (bus rapid transit) needs to be done carefully. There have been attempts at express service in the past in St. Louis. If it worked we would still have it. The old I-64 had many bus pull-outs and some with steps for access to sidewalks. If people wanted it we would still have it.

I’d like to see the establishment of a transit district. If this had existed 10 years ago this vote could have happened then.

We also have to address hiring Bob Baer’s successor. He’s already been at Metro longer than he had wanted to serve. It’s an attractive job now and we should be able to find a good President and CEO. We can now say, “there’s a system you can help rebuilt and expand.” That’s an attractive job.

Lastly, Metro promised CMT that they would hire a TOD (transit oriented design) manager if Prop A passed, someone to work with municipalities, developers and the transit agency. What other transit agencies do is maintain ownership of property (transit agency) and do long-term leases. Passing prop A provides a framework for dense development.