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[Graphic: Urban Review - St. Louis]


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St. Louis:
Victory in the Battle for Public Transportation —
"Confessions of a Front Line Warrior for Transit"

Commentary by Bill Heger · November 2010

NOTE: This commentary by Bill Heger, a St. Louis-area public transport advocate, has been adapted for a Webpage presentation and format, and moderately edited from an original posting to an online discussion forum.

In November of 2008, St. Louis County attempted to pass a half-cent sales tax in an attempt to raise more money for public transit. However, Proposition M failed to pass by a narrow margin.

There were a number of reasons that the measure failed. First and foremost, there had been a lot of setbacks at the Metro Transit agency. Prior to 2008, Metro's CEO, Larry Salci, was forced out after a failed lawsuit against the Cross County Collaborative, which was originally in charge of constructing the Shrewsbury extension of the light rail system, Metrolink. Many people held this against Metro when they went to the polls.

Another problem was the placement of the measure on the ballot. The promoters of the tax wanted to call it Proposition M for Metro and Metrolink. What they failed to realize was that by giving it the letter "M", their action put it rather low on the ballot.

With this being a national election, there were dozens of candidates from multiple parties running for office along with judges that needed votes of retention and several other ballot issues. Proposition M ended up almost at the very bottom of the ballot.

According to the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners, many ballots turned in had left Proposition M blank. There were so many items on the ballot that people got tired of flipping through all the pages.

The next year would be one of the darkest in St. Louis transit history. Service was reduced all over the metropolitan area. Not only did people working for Metro lose their jobs, but many people who depended on Metro to get to theirs had quit as well, due to loss of transportation. All over the area, bus stops were covered with signs indicating that the stop was temporarily out of service.

A temporary infusion of cash from the state government did help restore a limited amount of service. Some of the bus stops had stickers put over their temporary signs indicating that the service had now been restored. Many Metro critics had a field day with this, insisting that Metro was only faking and that they were spending too much money on signs.

Up against this rather dismal backdrop, Tom Shrout of Citizens for Modern Transit (CMT), came forward to seek what seemed impossible – another half-cent tax increase for Metro on the ballot. Many people initially scoffed at the idea of even asking for another tax increase.

Many critics screamed, "it`s the economy, stupid." Others insisted that Metro was beyond reform. Yet, in spite of all the nay saying, Tom Shrout and CMT pressed forward with their task.

A couple of major changes were made concerning how the campaign was conducted. First of all, the measure was changed from Proposition M to Proposition A. The major reason for this change was to push it higher up on the ballot. As discussed above, last time around, many people neglected to vote on the issue because they never got that far down on the ballot.

The other major change was to put the vote on the April local election ballot rather than on the national election ballot. This ballot was much shorter, so more people would see it. All was now in place to start the campaign.

One of the first tasks was to find someone to lead the campaign. When John Nations, mayor of Chesterfield, Missouri was chosen to lead the campaign, many people were shocked.

Nations was the mayor of one of the most affluent suburbs of St. Louis County. Most of the people who lived there drove around in expensive cars. Very few had probably ever set foot on a Metro vehicle in their entire life. In fact, the largest block of "No" votes against Proposition M probably came from Mr. Nations' community. To top it all off, he was a Republican, which would normally put him at odds with supporting public transit.

Yet, Mr. Nations' community had been very adversely affected by the cuts. Although few, if any, residents in Chesterfield used public transit, many workers in Chesterfield did. Chesterfield is home to St. Luke's hospital, Delmar Gardens Chesterfield Nursing Home, and the Willows retirement center, as well as many other service-sector jobs. Many of these employees could not afford a car and could not find jobs in the areas where they resided. Therefore, transit was their lifeline to employment.

As time went on, the job loss would impact the residents. One woman who voted against Prop M later went to visit her mother who resided in one of the retirement communities. She was shocked to find her mother in tears. When she asked why, her mother told her that her favorite nurse had to quit because she could no longer get to work.

This sent a shock wave through the woman who had voted No on M. It never occurred to her that by voting No it could have an immediate impact on someone who cared for a loved one. Out of this incident, and several others like it, came the slogan for the campaign: "Transit, some of us ride it. All of us need it."

LRT Passengers boarding Metrolink light rail train at Forest Park station.
[Photo: Urban Review – St. Louis]

Now that the campaign had a slogan, the next step was to start recruiting people for the campaign. One of the first groups enlisted was the local service workers union. Many of the workers who lost their jobs were service workers, so it was natural to have them provide much of the grunt work for the campaign.

Another group that was also key to accomplishing the goal was Metropolitan Congregations United. This was an organization of socially active churches (the kind Glenn Beck loves to hate) that were willing to cut across racial, social, cultural, and even spiritual lines to help bring forth support for transit. Having them on board helped neutralize any threats from the so-called religious right. It was hard for the religious right to make a spiritual argument against transit when you have a large number of congregations supporting it.

A third group that emerged was the college students. Led by a Washington University student named Liz Kramer, they formed an unusually effective force in getting their peers to support the measure and vote for it.

A fourth group that helped was John Beck and the Emis Broadcasting Network. Emis did everything they could to help the campaign by putting commercials on their radio stations. Ironically, one of the stations they owned was a conservative talk radio station which was a favorite of the Tea Party Movement.

Finally, there was Citizens for Modern Transit which had been part of the process from day one. All of these groups would form an effective coalition that would have to be ready for any challenge from the opponents.

The opponents were not who you might think they would be. Neither Randall O'Toole nor Wendell Cox was heard from during the entire campaign. That's not to say they were not active behind the scenes. However, neither one published an editorial nor made an appearance in spite of the fact that Cox lives in the area.

The three major opponents were local people: Thomas Sullivan, Richard Dockett, and John Burns. Sullivan has been an ongoing anti-Metro gadfly for a number of years. He claimed to represent the "Public Transit Accountability Project." Funny thing was ... he seemed to be the only person in the Public Transit Accountability Project. Some people speculated that Sullivan may have been Wendell Cox's front man.

Richard Dockett claimed to represent the "Concerned Taxpayers' of St. Louis". Just like Sullivan, Dockett seemed to be the only member of the organization he claimed to represent.

Some people think that Dockett was some kind of front man for the Cross County Collaborative. This was the group that originally was in charge of construction of the Shrewsbury extension. However, after the collaborative beat the rap in the lawsuit filed by Metro's Larry Salci, Richard Dockett stuck around.

He seemed to be the ultimate Step 'n' Fetchit to Sullivan. Frequently, both men would show up to testify at the same meeting. Dockett would always follow Sullivan to the lectern and only say, "I agree with Mr. Sullivan."

One time Sullivan failed to show up for a meeting, and Dockett was completely lost. He had no one to agree with.

The third opponent was a young man named John Burns. Burns was a 27-year-old newcomer to St. Louis politics, and was a front man for the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party Movement wanted to have a trophy, and so they made up their mind that, in the name of lower taxes, they were going to stop the transit tax initiative, Proposition A.

Burns had been involved in some rather questionable activities prior to his efforts to defeat Prop A. Some people felt he had a rather shady reputation. This may have hurt him in the long run.

He established his own anti-transit organization called Citizens for Better Transit (CBT). It should have been called "Citizens for Bogus Transit", because they really could have cared less about it.

Their website was called and it contained various lies and half-truths. Their basic thesis was that all of St. Louis's transit problems could be solved by just buying more buses. They were completely opposed to any expansion of rail transit, and blamed it for all of Metro's financial woes.

There were also foes in the media. Two of the biggest foes were Charlie Brennan and Mark Reardon at KMOX Radio. Brennan hosted the morning show and Reardon was on during the afternoon.

Although the station itself was supportive of Prop A, these two men did whatever they could to sling mud at it. Reardon would practically let the opponents like Burns and Sullivan have all the air time they wanted, but would not extend the same courtesy to the other side. This was a major setback. Yet, having Emis on our side helped counteract the naysayers at KMOX.

The first major fight was to get Prop A on the ballot. This involved a vote by the St. Louis county council. Unfortunately there were three Republicans who tried to prevent Prop A from even being placed on the ballot.

Sullivan and Dockett both showed up at the crucial meeting and tried to persuade the council to keep the measure off the ballot. I showed up as well, and put these two bozos in their place by refuting their testimony. Ultimately, the measure to put it on the ballot passed in spite of the opposition.

Then next came the actual campaign. Sullivan and Burns formed a somewhat shaky alliance.

Both the pro and the con sides went to work. The pro side had the advantage in money and numbers. However, the media kept playing favorites with the opposition.

CBT put up their own website at . The site contained all kinds of propaganda opposing rail and insisting that all of St. Louis's transit problems could be solved with just more buses. What they failed to say was that all of the ideas involving buses had been tried by Metro and had failed.

Fortunately, the polls seemed to favor the pro side.

Then, along the way, a minor disaster occurred. A drug deal went bad at the Metrolink parking lot at the Wellston Station.

Now, if you know anything about St. Louis, you will know that Wellston is one of the highest crime areas in St. Louis. The fact that a drug deal went bad and resulted in a shooting is almost a daily occurrence in Wellston. However, this botched drug deal occurred at the Metrolink station.

The opponents tried to have a field day with this incident, but somehow they could not make it stick. However, shortly after this, one of the major opponents made two major mistakes that did stick.

Thomas Sullivan had probably been the biggest anti-Metro gadfly during the entire campaign. He kept getting press in spite of the fact that when it came to real transit knowledge or experience, he was an absolute zero. Yet, this did not stop him from getting all the press he wanted.

However, eventually, I personally pierced his armor. One night before the St. Louis County Council, Sullivan spoke and insisted that Metro was giving a "free ride" to Washington University by providing services to transport students.

He failed to realize that I had copies of an e-mail from Ray Friem at Metro stating that, in fact, Washington U paid Metro $2.8 million to run service for their students, and that those services were open to the general public and not just students. I knocked Sullivan over like a bowling pin. He had just got caught in a lie in public.

Yet, the biggest blow to Sullivan came months late at another County Council meeting. He shot himself metaphorically in his own foot.

That night he got in an argument with County Executive Charlie Dooley concerning a federal investigation. Sullivan insisted that Dooley was under Federal Investigation. In reality, it was not Dooley, but rather someone who once worked for Dooley and had long since resigned. The discussion took a rather ugly turn and Dooley actually wagged his finger at Sullivan.

When the news story appeared in the Post-Dispatch, I managed to get the top comment on the article. I said, "If Sullivan can't tell you the truth about Charlie Dooley what makes you think he will tell you the truth about Metro?"

Every time Sullivan had an article published or a letter in the paper, I answered it by bringing up the Dooley incident and the Washington U misstatement of fact. I made these two things stick. Even the other opponents began to put some distance between themselves and Sullivan.

The closing days of the campaign were somewhat exhausting for me. I received a phone call from Metro asking if I could speak at their monthly board meeting. I asked why, and they said that Thomas Sullivan was signed up to testify that day during the public forum session. They needed someone to stand up to Sullivan, and they said I was the only one who knew how to stand up to him and put him in his place.

In spite of the fact that I had to take time off from work without pay, I hopped on Metrolink and went down to Metro headquarters to testify at the hearing. Tom Shrout came down as well, because he heard that John Burns from CBT was also going to testify.

Yet, neither one of these opponents showed up. May-be they heard that Metro had "called in the cavalry" and were scared off. The only opponent that did show up was Richard Dockett, and he was totally ineffective, because he had no one to agree with.

Finally came April 6, 2010 – election day. I spent the entire day working a polling place in my suburb.

As the day went on, I began to pick up a good vibe from the electorate. Everyone I talked to was very positive on Prop A. No one was rude. Everyone who refused the literature I was handing out said they were already planning to vote yes on A.

A phone call from Tom Shrout during the afternoon only gave more confidence. The county election board had counted up the absentee ballots and we were leading.

It was still early, and there were four hours to go until the polls closed. However, it did show we had a chance.

After the polls closed, I headed over to Washington University for what I was hoping would be a victory party. As the evening went on, and the numbers came in, they were all positive. Would the numbers hold? They did!

In what many people considered to be impossible, St. Louis County passed a transit tax. In spite of the Tea Party movement and the bad economy, we managed to pass a transit tax by a margin of 63% Yes to 37% No – not quite a 2/3 majority, but nonetheless quite decisive.

The opponents cried foul. Some said it was not a fair election because of low turnout. I said, "Tough! You had just as much a chance to get your No votes out as we did for our Yes votes. Failure to get your no votes out is your own fault."

John Burns of CBT went on a conservative talk radio station and insisted that "democracy died on April 6, 2010 in St. Louis County." Talk about a sore loser ... When I got home from the victory party, I had to rub it in Thomas Sullivan's face. I sent him a one-word e-mail that said, "Loser!"

Why did I post this story ...? I provided it as a source of encouragement, particularly as we face elections here in the USA.

Some public transportation supporters may be out campaigning for various ballot issues for transit. I want you to know that, in spite of the bad economy and the naysaying of the Tea Party movement, you can win.

We won. We did it by building a coalition that cut across economic and social lines. We neutralized the threats of the religious right by involving the faith community. We even got a leader from probably the last place in the world where most public transportation proponents would expect a transit advocate to come from: a Republican mayor of a ritzy suburb.

If you run an issue on the ballot, and fail, it is not the end. We lost in 2008 with Prop M. Yet we won a year and four months later.

Why? Because people saw what life was like without an adequate transit system, and were willing to ante up in spite of the economy.

Do not lose hope. You can win.

Some postscripts to this story:

• John Nations is now the new Director of the Metro Transit Agency. He replaces Bob Baer.

• Tom Shrout has since retired from Leadership at Citizens for Modern Transit. He wanted to retire on a high note.

• Richard Dockett and Thomas Sullivan have almost completely disappeared from the scene. John Burns still pops up occasionally, but has little to say about transit.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2010/11/05

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