Panel: Metro vote is key for region


A panel of local transit officials led by former mayor Vincent Schoemehl Jr. told Jewish community leaders on Monday that an April 6 defeat for a proposed public transportation measure could have dire consequences for the St. Louis area.

“It’s the starkest choice I’ve seen this civic community face in my adult life,” said Schoemehl, the chair of the Metro board of commissioners who also served three terms as mayor of St. Louis until 1993. “If we pass this then on April 7 we begin implementing the plan. If we don’t pass it then on April 7 we start laying off 650 people.”


Proposition A would impose a sales tax of one-half of one percent in order to fund MetroLink, MetroBus and transport for seniors and disabled individuals through Call-A-Ride. This is the second bite at the apple for Metro, the area’s public transit agency, which suffered a tough blow at the polls in 2008 when voters in the county rejected the ill-fated Proposition M resulting in route cutbacks around the area.

The Jewish Community Relations Council sponsored Monday’s session with officials from Metro to hear about their plans for the future and discuss the upcoming initiative and its possible ramifications.

The JCRC decided earlier this month to officially endorse the measure in a resolution emphasizing the importance of public transit to the environment, the elderly and those of limited means. It also committed the JCRC to membership in the Greater St. Louis Transit Alliance, a coalition that boosts public transportation in the area.

Matthew Cohen, director of internal marketing for Cedars at the JCA, expressed concerns about his organization’s situation. He told the assembled officials that a number of Cedars employees depend on Metro to get to work. Budget cuts after the Prop M defeat had threatened service to west St. Louis County. Some of those routes had been restored by funding from the state but they could be on the chopping block again if Prop A fails.

“I’m not the only senior facility or hospital-like facility west of Ballas that will feel a major effect,” he told the group.

Jessica Mefford-Miller, chief of Planning & System Development for Metro, said that other care establishments were in a similar position. Chesterfield community leaders had worked out a funding arrangement to preserve the service but the state stepped in to help instead.

“I can’t comment right now on which routes would be eliminated but in terms of the magnitude it will be worse than the March cuts,” she said.

Ray Friem, chief of operations for the agency, said that Metro’s management had done everything it could to contain costs – even forgoing raises. However, revenue from the sales tax had not kept pace with inflation.

“You have no choice but to get to these breakpoints where you’ve snapped enough twigs off that you’ve got to the trunk of the tree,” he said. “We’re basically there.”

Much of the meeting was taken up by Friem and Mefford-Miller, who outlined Metro’s extensive 30-year plans to the group but both said that if Proposition A failed, there was little hope of progressing with them in the immediate future.

Gerry Greiman, president of the JCRC, said that other institutions were facing similar issues to those expressed by the Cedars.

“It’s a vital concern for our community as well as the larger community,” he said after the meeting.

Cohen, who said Cedars had a bus stop right outside the facility, felt the panel had taken a good step in trying to bring attention to the issue.

“This is an example of one of the things that we can do to come together and try and connect to the Jewish community to get the word out about how crucial this vote will be,” he said after the meeting.

Schoemehl confirmed that potential cutbacks would be worse than those contemplated after the rejection of the 2008 measure since there would be no backstopping by the state legislature. He urged participants to speak with family members, friends and associates to spread the message that the April vote would play a key role in the city’s future.

“There are five cities in the country that are what I call organic cities in the sense that they regenerated their downtown core: Boston, Manhattan, Chicago, Portland and San Francisco,” he told the group. “What do those five cities have in common? They all have a mass transit system that delivers tens of thousands of people into the urban core in a predictable way at a reasonable cost.”

Schoemehl said that during the 1980s when he was mayor of St. Louis, the town was often seen as a “second-tier” city below the top rung of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

“The second tier was always San Francisco, St. Louis and Boston,” he said. “We’re nowhere near that anymore. I am convinced that the reason for that is that we don’t think or act regionally or do anything in a regional sense that allows us to project ourselves to the country and the world in that regard.”

Interviewed after the meeting Bob Gerchen, attending as president of the board of Central Reform Congregation, said that Metro’s fate was important to his temple both for practical reasons and as an issue of social justice. He said CRC felt deeply about the cause of revitalizing the city.

“Since we are the only Jewish congregation located in the city, the issue of transportation has always been in the forefront both for our members and the community that surrounds us,” he said. “There’s obviously a lot of work to be done to overcome the embedded resistance in St. Louis County.”

Schoemehl concluded his remarks on a positive note.

“I’m optimistic not because I think it’s easy to pass a tax,” he said. “I’m optimistic because people understand the issue now and are really paying attention to it.”