The Board of Aldermen have finally decided to take actual steps towards the beginning of the North-South MetroLink line. A Board Bill up for vote soon will put the choice to voters: it offers to place on the ballot the option for a one-half-percent sales tax, which would give approximately $20 Million per year to the city. That would be split as so:
|Category||% of Proceeds||Projected 2018 Allocation|
If we are going to make such a significant investment in MetroLink, and do it through the use of a sales tax (a regressive type of tax: one which has been shown to frequently worsen economic inequality), we must make sure that the tax money is spent in ways that will serve the poor, and since economic equality in St. Louis has a strong basis in racial inequality, the North-South MetroLink should ideally especially focus on serving black communities, particularly in North City.
There are clearly many factors involved, but one measurable way that will help us to decide whether it will help low-income communities is commute time. Commute time has been suggested as the single strongest factor in escaping poverty , and a 2016 study by Quinn Majeski at the Evans School further specified that effect, to the extent that "a one minute increase in commute time is a one percent [increase]* in the likelihood that an individual is receiving public assistance," and as receiving public assistance is one statistical indicator of poverty, a lower commute time is likely to help directly reduce poverty.
If the proposed stations serve communities that currently have long commutes, then there's a good chance that a light rail line (which would run frequently and often to these communities) would make commutes for those near the station much easier and faster.
But do we see that in the results?
It appears so. By calculating the people within a half-mile-radius of the proposed stations (using the Census Bureau's 2015 approximations by census block), we can look at the breakdown. We see first of all, that these MetroLink stations are targeting several much denser parts of the city, particularly the stations along South Jefferson, nearly all of which are in denser communities than any exising station in St. Louis city. Many of the areas also have an already high share of transit-users (as compared with car-using commuters), and that seems unlikely to decrease as accessibility improves. This means it seems likely to reduce commute times for many, particularly those in North City.
We also see that the stations are near a significant number of black St. Louisans: the population within a half-mile of the proposed Kingshighway station (at North Kingshighway and Natural Bridge) is almost 100% black. Since these are the same stations with some of the highest commute times in the city, reducing commute time should directly combat racial income inequality. It's impossible to know for sure (it might be possible, for example, that North-South would not help anyone, since it turns out that everyone in North City commutes to North County, and everyone in South City to South County. I find it rather improbable that this is the case.) but we can say with some confidence it is likely to improve commute times, and hopefully reduce poverty.
In terms of logisitics, the expansion will also fundamentally improve the city's transit network. Frequent and fast transit service to dense North City and South City neighborhoods, for example, will provide many residents who work Downtown (or elsewhere along MetroLink) the option to commute. We might expect more folks along the line (existing and proposed) to consider trying to live a car-free lifestyle: a factor in improving lives by removing the costs of a car, and an important element for attracting new residents to the city.
So is this tax worthy of being voted on, and worth voting for? The transit half of the bill seems like it would be. I expect a lot of debate on the other features (particularly the police surveillence aspect, presuming the bill passes the board vote (it seems likely, since every mayoral candidate appears to support the expansion), but I believe the extreme need for improved transit in the region pushes this into definite yes, in my book. If we could do it otherwise, perhaps with more frequent and better buses, I would support that as well, but I think we can see that North-South will not likely be a failure, and so if it takes St. Louisans being excited about the "sexier" option, so be it. We need it done.
You can read the committee substitute version here, which passed 22-3-1 on 2/3/17.
Board Bill 227 did pass, and became "Proposition 1" on the April 2017 Ballot, instituting a half-percent "economic development sales tax," as specified in the board bill. A nine-member "economic development tax board" was established. Read more about that board here.
The city would later go on to institute another sales tax in November of the same year, through "Proposition P," raising the total base sales tax in St. Louis City to 9.769% (the third highest in the nation). You can read more about Prop P here.
* It's somewhat odd, but the word here was actually originally decrease, so I have reversed the direct quote from Majeski. However, every other reference to commute times and poverty, including in the "Discussion" and "Conslusions" sections of the paper ascribe longer commute times to higher poverty, which Majeski measures by the size of individuals receiving public assistance. I believe that this is a typo, and appreciate their study greatly, but I do not want to misquote them, so if I am mistaken, I am happy to correct this.