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Messenger: Transit fund for St. Louis MetroLink expansion begins to grow. But what happens next?

Messenger: Transit fund for St. Louis MetroLink expansion begins to grow. But what happens next?

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Asked by St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie to dream big, Douglass Petty offered a vision for St. Louis.

It was Tuesday morning in the Kennedy Hearing Room on the second floor of City Hall, and Petty was answering questions posed by the Board of Aldermen’s legislation committee.

Petty, who lives in the Fox Park neighborhood, had been nominated by the St. Louis Public Schools to serve on a committee that will advise the city on how to spend the estimated $20 million a year raised by last year’s passage of Proposition 1.

“I want to help St. Louis look like St. Louis everywhere that St. Louis is,” Petty said.

Parts of the Gateway City have seen better days.

That was one of the driving forces behind the passage of a sales tax hike that is supposed to raise money for the long-planned North-South MetroLink transit line, as well as neighborhood preservation projects and public safety needs.

The transit line — if it ever gets built — would cut through the core of the city, connecting the dense and fragile south side with a north side that in some neighborhoods is a hollowed out version of its former self. It is the sort of project that some community leaders have said would transform the city, rebuilding economically distressed communities, connecting poor people who lack transportation to jobs, and attracting millennials and the businesses that employ them to a city with a more robust transit system.

But first, state law requires the city to establish an advisory committee to meet and make recommendations on how to spend the money. Then, of course, there’s the matter of the fact that the sales tax revenue raised by Proposition 1 will produce only a fraction of the billion or so dollars needed to build the new MetroLink line.

Petty was one of seven members of the new advisory committee approved by the legislation committee on Tuesday, but not before each one of them answered some version of this question from Alderman Christine Ingrassia:

“Do you feel comfortable allocating the money from Proposition 1 according to the ballot language?”

That language, in a bill sponsored by Ingrassia, called for 60 percent of the money raised — about $12 million a year — to be dedicated to the new transit line.

The 6th Ward alderman became concerned when none of Mayor Lyda Krewson’s appointments to the committee had a direct connection to transit.

“I would have preferred someone with specific expertise in public transit to be a part of the slate of candidates to the board,” Ingrassia said in an interview. “I feel compelled to help ensure the money collected is allocated pursuant to the ordinance and ballot language. Based on the testimony of the mayor’s proposed appointees, I feel hopeful we’re on the right track.”

That there is concern that the city — either the mayor or the aldermen — might circumvent voters’ will on how to spend the money from the tax shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s actually the basis of another board bill that contemplates such a thing.

Alderman Tom Oldenberg’s Board Bill 246 seeks to protect Proposition P sales tax revenue to make sure it all goes to public safety. “For at least the last eight (8) consecutive fiscal years, the City’s Annual Operating Plan, as approved and adopted by the Board of Aldermen, has included Special Revenue Reallocations’ that provide for the reassignment of such Special Revenue Funds for purposes other than those for which they were earmarked in their enacting ordinances,” his bill reads.

There is no such bill contemplating protection for the transit funding. Police have a strong lobby. Poor people don’t.

It’s why, to borrow Petty’s words, some parts of St. Louis don’t look like St. Louis.

Money has a way of following the loudest constituencies, and in a city with a broken budget, that means somebody is going to lose.

For now, though, it appears the transit money is safe, even if a plan to make the new MetroLink line a reality is still a dream.

“To be clear, I am not contemplating using Prop 1 funds for anything other than what voters were told,” Krewson said in a written statement. “That would not be right and might not even be legal.”

A new committee of residents will start their work in coming months. For Gregory Meyer, a retired teacher who grew up in the Baden neighborhood, it’s an opportunity to reimagine the city of his youth, when he could take a street car or ride his bike to get anywhere he wanted to go.

When Ogilvie asked Meyer to dream big, he didn’t hesitate:

“To me, the light rail project offers the greatest opportunity.”

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