Proposition P: Sales Tax Increase in St. Louis City to Fund CityArchRiver, Parks to Ask Voters for $1B

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I-70 at ArchTomorrow, Alderwoman Phyllis Young will introduce Board Bill No. 258 to the City of St. Louis Board of Aldermen. The bill calls for a 3/16 (0.1875%) sales tax increase in the City of St. Louis to support the CityArchRiver project, Great Rivers Greenway and city parks. If approved by the Board of Aldermen, Prop P would go to the city’s voters on April 2, 2013. The board must approve the bill by January 22 for the measure to appear on the April ballot. Approval of similar bills are being sought in St. Louis County and St. Charles County. Two of the three would be required to pass before the tax increase would take affect. One of the two must be St. Louis County. It is estimated that the tax would generate $38M per year if passed in the City of St. Louis ($6.2M), St. Louis County ($24.9M) and St. Charles County ($7.2M).

The bill reads: PROPOSITION P: SAFE AND ACCESSIBLE ARCH AND PUBLIC PARKS INITIATIVE – For the purpose of increasing safety, security, and public accessibility for the Gateway Arch grounds and local, county and regional parks and trails for families and disabled and elderly visitors, and for providing expanded activities and improvements of such areas, shall the City of St. Louis join such other of the counties of St. Louis and St. Charles to impose a three-sixteenths of one cent sales tax in addition to the existing one-tenth of one cent sales tax applied to such purposes…

A year ago, the City of St. Louis passed a $64M parks bond issue. The major selling point on that bond issue was two-fold: the new funding would not require a tax increase and would serve to leverage a $100M fundraising campaign by Forest Park Forever. St. Louis County is experiencing its own park funding drama, though its unclear how serious an issue it is. The total cost to taxpayers in the three counties could reach $1B over 20 years, when the bill would have to then be reauthorized. The 20-year cost could reach $162M in the City, $188M in St. Charles County and $634M in St. Louis County. In the City of St. Louis, where local taxing districts are common, sales tax would exceed 12% in places.

So why the proposed tax increase? It’s simple math. The Arch project cost stands at $577M. A TIGER III grant provided $22M and MoDOT has dedicated $25M in state highway funds. Add to that the $15M pledged by Great Rivers Greenway (GRG) and you very nearly have the sum total raised to-date: $62M. What’s left? Levy a local tax. Tying it to ballot measure that in short asks residents if they want to fund their local parks is at once smart and devious.

In 2010, the existing tax (created in 1999), provided $10,799,815 to GRG. The new tax would give 60% of new revenue to GRG with half of that to be allocated to the Arch project, and the remaining 40% to be split between local park districts. GRG is a great organization and has completed some great projects. Of the predicted $38M generated annually by the new tax, 60%, or $22.8M, would go to GRG, then half would go to the CityArchRiver project. The revenue would be used to issue $120M in bonds for that project, costing taxpayers approximately $200M to retire. The remaining 40% would be split among city and county parks.

Now just two hurdles remain for supporters of Prop P, the Board of Alderman and a public vote in April. The BoA is being addressed by spreading the new tax revenue across the city. The bill specifies that new funds allocated to the Major Parks Capital Improvements Account shall be directed to capital improvements in Carondelet, Fairground, Forest, O’Fallon, Tower Grove and Willmore Parks (the Major Parks) in the following proportions: Carondelet, 15.1%; Fairground, 11%; Forest, 30.6%; O’Fallon, 10.7%; Tower Grove, 23.6%; and Willmore, 9%.

In supporting materials for the introduction of Prop P, the overall City Arch River 2015 project is now estimated to cost $577 million. Materials state that construction will begin in early 2013 and “be implemented by October 28, 2015.” With highway funding in place for the “lid” over I-70 and GRG funding for the smart Lenor K. Sullivan Boulevard project, it’s unclear where the additional funds would be directed.

Featured in the materials (full document embed below), is new documentation of the plan to raise Lenor K. Sullivan Boulevard above flood stage. This portion of the project, planned in large part to better connect existing north and south trail networks, is one of the bright spots of the entire Arch grounds project. Planned changes are likely to have a substantial impact on the usefulness and attractiveness of the riverfront promenade, while not creating new obstacles to access.

Unfortunately, the overall CityArchRiver project continues to extoll misguided and simply wrong design assertions. With public comments having been rejected more than once, the Board of Aldermen hearing and April vote are likely the only avenue for residents to express opposition to project design. Updated documents state that the millions of dollars in re-investment in the Interstate is only needed due to the closure of Memorial Drive and continue to mistate the removal of city streets as an “upgrade…of the street grid”: Critical components of the project are; a pedestrian link over I-70, replacement of the bridges, roadways and ramps that are necessary due to the pedestrian link, upgrade of the City of St. Louis street grid that feeds into the JNEM and the transportation loop that services both downtown St. Louis and the Archgrounds.

Continued design problems aside, the immediate issue at-hand in this board bill is funding. The levy would only go into effect if 2 of 3 counties approved the measure. Given the numbers (City of St. Louis $6.2M, St. Louis County $24.9M, St. Charles County $7.2M), clearly St. Louis County would need to be one of them. It’s no stretch to say the tax will be most difficult to pass in St. Charles County, leaving the burden on the central metro area. Ultimately, county councils, and the city’s Board of Aldermen will decide whether to put the issue to the public. If successful, supporters have stated that they hope to introduce the bill to St. Claire and Madison Counties in the metro east.

At the heart of the issue is the challenge of an urban National Park. No one would expect Wyoming residents pay for Yellowstone, but the core of our metro region is going to be asked to give more than $200M for the Arch project and millions more for GRG and other parks. (In fact, the Wyoming State Legislature defeated a bill earlier this year that would have increased sales tax by 1% inside Yellowstone National Park.) Needless to say, the national park itself isn’t working well for the city and has been especially detrimental to business development immediately next to what should be a magnet for cafes, corporate headquarters and more. The Arch grounds investment is predicated on attracting 2M more visitors to the Arch each year as attendance has flagged. It’s a “heads on beds” strategy that attempts to fight nationwide macro-trends of museum and destination attraction attendance decline. It’s an unproven strategy that’s been invoked for every massive redevelopment project in the city’s history.

This bill should not ask the Board of Alderman and possibly voters to fund a National Park, county parks and city parks in one motion. Such an effort is intentionally meant to obfuscate any examination of need, or questions regarding the merit of expenditures on specific projects. You want more money for St. Louis County parks? Here’s your chance, oh by the way, the National Park will get $200M of your taxes as well. You think Fairground Park needs funding? Great, we have that right here for you (nevermind that the vast majority of taxes paid by those using Fairground Park will go to a National Park and other city parks).

The bill should be split. Parks are a regional asset and the region has demonstrated that by committing nearly $10M each year to the great work done by Great Rivers Greenway. Closer funding and management agreements of City and County parks should be explored. Still, the Board of Aldermen should not be asking city residents for sales tax increase following the bond issue of last year. And asking that a City and County both losing population, jobs and tax base, pledge more than $150M in sales tax revenue in an unprecedented measure to fund a National Park, goes too far on its own. If taxpayers choose to fund a National Park now, it will set a new precedent and we will always be funding our National Park.

What if the 3/16 tax were implemented but all revenue were invested in city and county parks? It would mean $200M more for those entities. If the region has $1B to spend, and Prop P supporters think we do, what should we buy? When elected officials ask voters for $1B, the request should be built on the foundation of an open discussion, a need being articulated, projects to be paid for detailed. The CityArchRiver proejct is clearly moving forward in some form, but what if we asked, what could done with $577M? Imagine what could be accomplished without touching the Arch grounds.

What’s missing entirely, still, is a public discussion regarding this bill, Prop P and funding of specific park projects, other options and opportunity costs. The people of St. Louis may get one opportunity to address the bill and then, perhaps, one opportunity to vote on it. Yet today, a case for our $1B has not been made, not by CityArchRiver, Great Rivers Greenway, elected officials or anyone else. A time for that will come, supporters say, once a few hurdles are crossed.

BOARD BILL NO. 258 – Proposition P, 3/16% Sales Tax to Arch grounds, Great Rivers Greenway and City Parks

CAR Prop P

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  • John R.

    Another thing I think voters will and should keep in mind is the attempts at the state level to impose a significant sales tax increase.

    Senator Lamping has introduced a major tax overhaul bill that will significantly raise the state sales tax (with some additional revenue from a slight increase in the cigarette tax) while reducing the income tax. This bill will get some major review in the upcoming session. Of course, Sinquefeld is spending big $$ to completely eliminate the income tax and hike the sales tax. Voters may also be asked to support a sales tax to fund MODOT’s plans for widening I-70, I-44 and other transportation improvements. So it is pretty clear that Jefferson City has its eye on a significant state sales tax hike, which likely would put total sales tax levels in Saint Louis City and County at alarmingly high and uncompetitive rates.

    At the end of the day, though, I hope at minimum Saint Louis City BoA requires NPS, GRG and parks specificity in what would be funded (and ideally through a true public involvement process) before it could get to the ballot. If this can be done, I think the community will give it thoughtful consideration. But if the vote is just for $$ being given for vague projects, it will be in trouble.

    By the way, City parks and FPF just announced this week what it plans to do with the recent bonds…. basically a lot of less-than-sexy but much-needed infrastructure work like street improvements, ball field improvements, etc.

  • guest

    The photo at the top of this post needs to go on the City to River home page and the CNU Highways to Boulevards I-70 St. Louis section. No one photo better illustrates how downtown is separated from the Arch grounds and riverfront. The lid reconnects one block out of of an ocean of separation.

    • John R

      Truly crazy, isn’t it? Pat Robertson said (hopefully jokingly!) of the EPA or some evil government body, “a small nuclear bomb could take care of that!” I’m not even sure if that would work on this massive barrier.

  • tpekren

    Alex has nailed it on this one. I think the tax going to the voters should be about one thing and only one thing, GRG period. Raising LSK can easily be specific to GRG and in a lot of respects should be handle by them as it is truly a regional organization as this is one aspect of the project that also benefits the region on a local basis.
    As far as giving a share of the tax revenue to county and local parks, no, no and no. There needs to be discussion on consolidation and regionalization of local and county parks before this scheme is put to voters. In fact, I think voters will see this for what it is and roundly defeat it as they ask themselves why tax myself for a someone else’s local park because we need to raise funds locally for a national park of all things.
    It is very different from GRG which has a strong plan, implements projects across local and county lines, transparent and does something that a lot of people see value in day in and day out. Unfortunately, the consequence is that this will squarely put any opportunities for additional GRG revenues back 5 to 10 ten years when funding should be doubled for build out of great projects like North Trestle or continuous river trails either it be Mississippi, Missouri and Meremac are in name only or half completed.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Very well stated.

    • T-Leb

      Yes! You comment is exactly RIGHT ON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • geoffksu

    Hate to be negative nancy but someone has to slap everyone back to reality – a boulevard is at least a decade away – an environmental assessment (1-2 years), planning (1-2 years), preliminary, conceptual, and final design time (3-5 years), construction (2-3 years) and not including MoDOT grappling its head around demoting a interstate highway.

    The new river bridge process was initiated in the early 2000’s – almost a decade and a half to build a plan/design/build a bridge, interstate, andinterchanges but the conversion from interstate to boulevard is a project unprecedented in the state and one of few in the country.

    I would LOVE to be able to walk from downtown to the Arch grounds without passing through the pedestrian danger zone but I there are a great number of hurdles to clear before anyone can remotely start talking it as a reality.

    P.S. CityArchRiver only receives 30% of the additional sales tax generated, Great Rivers Greenway receives 30% as well, and the other 40% to city parks -quit arguing like every penny is going to the Arch grounds.

    • Alex Ihnen

      The split in funding is clearly articulated above, I think. It’s not so simple to parse out the numbers – what each county would pay to the Arch and pay overall are both important and included in the commentary. FYI, GRG would receive 60% and then pass 50% of that to CityArchRiver.

    • T-Leb

      As Scott Ogilvie said on Twitter: Lets be clear, if I-70 boulevard conversion is not part of the CityArchRiver plan & tax increase, its off the table for 20 years.

  • *topia

    CitytoRiver should do everything in its power to get the Aldermen to require a I-70 to be turned into a boulevard as a provision of passing this vote. Rename I-70 the Danforth Memorial Boulevard, have it dip under the lid entranceway, and remove the elevated portions.

  • jhoff1257

    Despite my concerns about leaving I-70 in place, I have to say the new LKS (Wharf St.) improvements look fantastic. Raising LKS, building bus pullouts, new planters and landscaping, new streetlights, cobblestone pavers, new stairs and access ramps to the levee, and my favorite part, an uninterrupted separated, protected bikeway from Chouteau to Biddle street is a significant improvement over the hodgepodge of asphalt and uneven cobblestones that are down there right now. To be able to bike from Chouteau to Illinois (via the McKinley) without having to access a public street would be HUGE. Add the Trestle to that and St. Louis is making waves in bicycle and alternative infrastructure circles. Funny how CAR seems to understand how to link the River with the grounds, even beautifully, yet have no comprehension on how to link the City with the grounds…

    • Scott Ogilvie

      Its a good point, the LKS improvements are welcome, and the downtown riverfront as a destination from the north and (future) south riverfront trails will be great. Remember though, this is already paid for. The $67 million phase one project is funded without a tax increase. The lid, some street “improvements”, and the LKS project are ready to go, even without the Arch tax. Lid + LKS seems to me like a pretty good project on its own without an additional $300M.

      • John R

        according to Exhibit F, it looks like GRG only has about half the funding for the riverfront trail work and needs about $15 million more.

        • Scott Ogilvie

          The $30 million renovation to LKS is the platinum version. They have gold and silver versions that cost less, and could be built with existing revenue. To answer the question above, the next $300 million goes to tearing down the parking garage and building a new garage across the street, then fixing the area where the garage had been, tearing out Washington Ave., the new entry for the museum (which costs a lot), $100 million for “paths and trails”, new Keiner Plaza, and bells and whistles here and there.

      • jhoff1257

        Thanks Alderman Ogilvie. Though I’m a bit confused, if the new LKS is largely paid for, the lid and other “improvements” are already paid for, then what else is going to cost $300 Million!? A new museum entrance and some replacement grass in place of a parking structure?

        • John R

          Isn’t that part of the problem, that we are all confused? It is imperative that CAR have another “Report to the Community” updating the public on where they are, why they have problems meeting their fundraising goals, why a local sales tax is needed, and what specifically would be funded. I think the last Report to the Community was in January, so its logical to have one next month.

  • 314D

    Whatever must be done to remove 70 from the city and replace it with a BOULEVARD needs to be done!!!! Bottom line. I cant stress it enough. No other improvement will have the same affect on not only the arch grounds, but the entire CITY! Removing highways from the city has had tremendous results all over. Lets get the word out, lets get in the paper etc and lets start making people aware!!

  • T-Leb

    I almost hate to say it… but I don’t feel as though the Arch ground need any improvement from CityArchRiver. I would pass the measure in a heart beat if it was about funding city/county parks and GRG… CityArchRiver doesn’t deserve a dime of tax payer money. I’m a tax payer, I have no idea what they intend to do besides the band-aid lid over highway that I vehemently do not support. Rational folks support a boulevard.

    • jhoff1257

      Damn straight. Alderwoman Young would be wise to add a boulevard provision to this bill 🙂

    • It has its merits.

      The western entrance to the museum (and renovation of the museum) is a MUST. I wouldn’t even really have a problem with the lid as welcoming mat if the City+Arch+River plan didn’t sever Memorial Drive for it.

      And as Alex mentioned, elevating Leonor K. Sullivan (no offense to Rep. Sullivan, but can we return this stretch to Wharf Street?) is a smart, elegant, no-brainer decision and should set the stage for future riverfront activation.

      The problem is that the project is too big in scope. Had they framed it as revamping the Archgrounds and museum, easy-peasy. I suspect funding would have been fairly easy to come by. But when you ask for $577M worth of extravagance, you damn well better propose something transformative. A boulevard does that. Closed streets and new trees don’t.

      • T-Leb

        It certainly shouldn’t be mixed in with any effort to fund city/county parks. I can’t see this as anything more than an attempt to bundle thru something unpopular, or something that wouldn’t pass an honest public debate in current form.