Community should rally to fight Metro transit cuts


In my family we used to have a saying: “If you have a problem that money can solve, it’s not a serious problem.” For us, serious problems were those that money couldn’t solve: critical illnesses, family dysfunction, the death of a loved one.

I thought about this saying, and how it doesn’t apply in all situations, last Friday, when the Jewish Community Relations Council convened a forum to discuss the cuts in public transportation throughout the St. Louis area beginning March 30. The cuts will cause serious problems for thousands of people. Money would solve many of these problems. But, to date, there has been a lack of political will to find short and long-term solutions to the problems of public transportation in our area.

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The results will be devastating. People will have trouble getting to their jobs. Businesses will have trouble retaining employees. Students will have difficulty getting to school. The blind will be completely out of luck unless they have someone to drive them. The disabled, who count on specially-equipped buses to accommodate their wheelchairs, will now be doubly handicapped. Homebound senior citizens who count on health aides who use public transit may now be looking at going into nursing homes. Active seniors, who may have given up their cars but have not given up getting out, face new limitations. And, as usual in our society today, the burdens fall most heavily on those who can least afford to bear them: the poor, the elderly, the disabled.

“I feel very emotional about this issue,” said State Sen. Joan Bray, in her opening remarks. “I can see only one real resolution immediately, and that is to use some of the stabilization money that is coming in to Jefferson City. We are desperate and we have to make it happen now.”

Metro requested a one-time emergency appropriation of $35 million from the state, but the House Budget Committee refused to support the request.

“The right people just don’t get it,” Bray said.

Les Sterman, president of the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, spoke about his concerns about the future health of the St. Louis metro area. “Great cities have great transit systems,” he said. “If we don’t have good transportation, people are deprived of opportunity and they are deprived of choice.”

The 125 people who attended the forum were clearly moved by the testimony of some of those who are directly affected by the cuts, including Beverly Armstrong, executive director of the Missouri Council of the Blind, and Dianne and Stuart Falk, representing Paraquad.

“It feels like we are being punished,” Stuart Falk said.

Congregation Shaare Emeth’s Rabbi Andrea Goldstein, representing the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, was one of the clergy representatives. She reminded the audience of the admonition in Leviticus, Chapter 19: “You shall not…place a stumbling block before the blind.”

The stumbling blocks placed before those who use mass transit are huge, and not likely to be removed without huge effort, according to Jessica Mefford-Miller, acting chief of Planning and System Development for Metro. She cited four options that are being explored.

“State funding is critical. We now get a paltry amount from the state and it must be increased,” she said. “Second, we have to come up with a new source of revenue at the local level. This will probably mean another ballot issue for a sales tax increase. Third, we have submitted several requests for federal funding. Finally, we are working with the city of Chesterfield to get one route going along the West County corridor.”

A number of possible short and long-term actions were suggested by meeting participants. “We need to have a huge mobilization right now and get as many people as possible to call Mayor Francis Slay, County Executive Charlie Dooley, and Gov. Jay Nixon,” Senator Bray said. “The state does have a responsibility and these are the people who can make it happen.”

For readers who want to follow up on Senator Bray’s suggestion, here are the phone numbers:

* St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay: 314-622-4000

* St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley: 314-615-5000

* Gov. Jay Nixon: 573-751-3222

As Jews, we cannot stand idly by while our neighbors suffer. We must heed the words in Deuteronomy, “…open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” And we must engage all of our friends and neighbors to make sure that the state of Missouri lives up to its motto: “The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.”

Barbara L. Finch is president of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice and a member-at-large of the Jewish Community Relations Council.