Citizens for Modern Transit has been advocating for public transportation in the St. Louis region for thirty years. But at a lunch last week celebrating its anniversary, the focus was on the future. Keynote speakers included Missouri Department of Transportation Director Dave Nichols, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern.
For Nichols, the future includes securing state funding for public transit in Missouri. He said that despite the failure of amendment 7 in August, the proposed transportation tax succeeded in moving the conversation about transportation funding forward.
He said that in a state capitol where transportation funding conversations traditionally focused on paying for roads and bridges, public transit entered the conversation for the first time.
“We’re going to keep talking about it, and I do believe we have some support,” Nichols said. “I’ve talked to some key legislators, and I do believe that there is an appetite to talk about transportation funding as we move forward.”
But Nichols said getting state funding for public transit would be an uphill battle.
“I’ll be pushed very hard through the legislative process,” by people suggesting short-term fixes involving fuel taxes “and we know that a fuel tax based on the existing constitution can only be used for roads and bridges,” he said.
With jurisdictions on either side of the Mississippi River, Slay and Kern’s visions were mirror images of each other. Both see public transit as a means of increasing economic opportunity.
“Access to affordable transportation is what it’s going to take to grow this area,” said Kern. “It’s about jobs. And whether we’re in Illinois and we talk about Scott Air Force Base, or East St. Louis, or the communities in between, they all rely on transportation to get to jobs and to get to commerce.”
Slay said one of the major problems facing the city of St. Louis is concentrations of poverty.
“Poverty is a product of isolation,” said Slay. “Transit helps us eliminate isolation by connecting the city with its workers.”
Kern pointed out that the St. Louis region has a history of using public transportation as the main mode of travel, from which the area can model future plans.
“When you wanted to go to Chicago from the area, you got to Union Station and you went to Chicago. Right now we’re talking about high speed rail to take us where? Chicago. So the template is there,” he said. “In Illinois when we wanted to go to St. Louis, what did we do? We got on a streetcar, we got on a trolley….The same thing happened here in Missouri, you got on a street car, and it took you to jobs, it took you to commerce, it took you where you needed to go.”
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.