Citizens for Modern Transit (CMT) hosted its 37th Annual Meeting virtually on Thursday, Sept. 16. The event served as an opportunity for transit riders, major employers, academic institutions, and labor and community organizations to witness all CMT has accomplished this past year as it worked to champion, challenge, encourage and advocate for public transit in an effort to drive economic growth and improve the quality of life in the St. Louis region. New board members were also elected, and the 2021 Champion of Transit Awards were presented. Attention was then directed to the keynote presentation, which featured a discussion by area elected officials on how the “Future of Transit is Rooted in Regional Collaboration.” This presentation provided insights into why leadership believes transit is essential now and into the future, highlighted the top transit priorities for the administrations, and outlined how constituents can help ensure public transportation access continues to play a key role in the vitality of the regions for years to come.
The event culminated with CMT highlighting three key areas of opportunity as the organization heads into FY22, including increasing community collaboration and support for transit at the regional and state levels, rebuilding ridership numbers, and maintaining the organization’s financial stability.
Here’s an overview of what keynote presenters had to say …
City of St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones
“Public transit is essential to the recovery and growth of our communities in the city. We have to ensure access to jobs, education, and healthcare throughout the entire region. We can see the impact of public transit in the central corridors – areas like the Central West End and Midtown are booming with the help of MetroLink – but not everybody is participating in that success. The Cortex Station has been, and will continue to be, a critical development tool in that area and has the support of the biggest employers in the City – BJC, Wash U, and Saint Louis University. Transit has the unique ability to successfully cross boundaries like the city limits, the river, and more. For the region to capitalize on the benefits of transit, we can no longer view it in silos – like city vs county. The future of transit is really rooted in a regional approach and the city is definitely ready to get on board.
We are in a unique situation under the current administration in that the President, Secretary of Transportation, and Congress have all stepped up to expand infrastructure in the three COVID relief packages. In addition, Congress is working on its next Infrastructure Bill, and in order to secure the funding, we have to think like a region. That means we have to get our act together locally to present a cohesive package for what it’s going to look like on the local level. We have to be unified and present a solid plan. The City is ready to do that. I believe the County is ready to do that as well. But, regional collaboration isn’t just limited to government entities. We need the St. Louis business community to step up too. We had a press conference downtown about public safety. Both business and civic leaders were there to say that this isn’t something just the police are going to be responsible for – it’s going to be all of us working together to provide other opportunities for our region to have fun in a safe way. I don’t see transit any differently. Transit is a key component of the 2030 Job’s Plan with Greater STL. We also need advocacy groups like CMT to continue to advocate, because just like its 2010 campaign phrase “Whether you ride it or not, St. Louis needs high-quality transit.
Transit access gives our residents a tool to succeed. In addition, it serves as an expansion tool for possible development in North City which has had decades of disinvestment – and parts of South St. Louis. It can deliver economic development, employment access, safer neighborhoods, increase property values and expand connections. Not only do we need to keep moving forward with our regional priorities, but we also need to work together on pushing the State of Missouri to invest in transit because currently, we are 46th in the nation in transit investment on the state level.
The Northside-Southside MetroLink or BRT, whatever it is going to turn into, is definitely my top priority. As treasurer, I funded the $2 million to update the study and I stand ready to make sure this is something we start on. It may not be completed by the time I leave this office, but I definitely want us to move forward on this project.”
St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page
“My view of public transit falls into two major bundles. First, of course, how do we address disparities and inequities in our region, and how do we make sure everyone has access to healthcare and a chance to get to work, a job or healthy food options? Public transit has a real role there. But also, for those of us in the County, it is also an important economic development tool. Public transit is how people get to work. And if we want our businesses to be able to operate and provide vital services in our communities – we need to make sure that folks who work there, can get there. Public transit is an important part of that.
The biggest challenge is addressing public safety. East-West Gateway has helped us address that through a public safety study and its implementation. We see much more cooperation between law enforcement agencies that are working together to provide public-safety across all jurisdictions. I think the cooperation we see regionally isn’t just in the financial resources it takes to make this big system run, but also in providing the services and the public safety.
The pandemic really has highlighted the inequities we see in healthcare and some of the other essential tasks that people need in their daily lives. The pandemic has really made it obvious what our needs are in our community. It provides us even more of a momentum, more of a narrative, and more of an argument for our goals and taking advantage of where we are with the federal government right now. The Infrastructure Bill and the resources that are preparing to come to our community makes it a generational opportunity. We need to take advantage of it. We need to be thoughtful in our path forward. This is a real opportunity to address the inequities and disparities that have been around in our communities for a long time. This is one of the greatest economic development tools that we have.
We are going to dovetail on the studies done in the City of St. Louis to look at the expansion opportunities in St. Louis County and be prepared to take advantage of whatever federal money that will be available, along with our local match, to expand services in St. Louis County.”
East-West Gateway Executive Director Jim Wild
“Public transit is essential to providing opportunities to people in the community and the region, for recovery and growth, and to ensure access to job, education and healthcare, and economic development throughout the region.
Collaboration from the regional perspective is about working together and supporting one another in their projects – whether their project is expanding MetroLink in St. Clair County, or working on Northside-Southside in the City of St. Louis, or potentially expanding into North St. Louis County as it comes out of North City. These are all things we need to be working together and supporting one another on. We have things like NGA, which is coming online and drawing employees from all across the region. A Northside-Southside MetroLink expansion would be able to help provide transportation to those individuals. Back in 2018, my board during our summit, came together on four different items that they wanted to work together, support, and collaborate on in the region to help address issues: public safety, workforce and education, economic development and having one voice in Jefferson City, Springfield and Washington D.C. Transit is going to provide an opportunity for us to test those commitments to being collaborative. I really think collaboration, as it relates to transit, is going to be put to a test in some respects in the next few years. But I think our leaders are up for that challenge.
Transit is essential because it provides opportunity and levels the playing field in some respects to provide access to individuals for healthcare, jobs and education. It helps provide access to the rest of the region.
There are two big priorities that I am hearing from my board. One is safety and security. They took that on, having staff, commissioning an audit of the system and coming up with 99 recommendations. The follow-up to that was coming up with a strategy to address those 99 items and eventually having us be a third-party reviewer to make sure those 99 recommendations were implemented. The idea behind safety and security was to help address ridership losses. The perception is that a lot of the ridership loss was because safety and security – and I am sure that is credited to some of it – but also nationally ridership had been decreasing throughout the entire country. The downward trend was about a nine percent loss between 2014 and 2019, and then we went right into the pandemic and the problem then became that no one was going out and ridership was decreasing significantly. It was so significant that in April of 2020 the loss was about 80 percent compared to the year prior in ridership. Then in January of this year, it was still 60 percent below 2019 numbers. We need to regain that ridership, whether it’s through safety and security of the system or some sort of marketing or other program that will encourage people to use transit and take advantage of the opportunities it will provide as we move ahead. Those are really the two big things – safety and security and increasing ridership.”