As the 2008 election approaches, St. Louis public transit advocates are making a last push to convince voters to pass Proposition M. It would increase sales taxes by half a cent – about $55 per family per year – to ease a budget crunch. If it doesn’t pass, officials say they’ll have to slash service. According to the American Public Transit Association, about a third of the country’s transit agencies say they’ll need to cut service to balance their budgets. The crisis is especially bad in smaller cities: Eugene, Ore., for example, as well as Milwaukee, Wis., and Providence, R.I.
Blueprint America — with Weekend America on public radio — travels to St. Louis to visit the people who’re likely to suffer the most if transit officials do end up cutting service.
Rick Karr reports.
Nobody really likes buses. It’s just that some people have no choice. Like Willie Kimbrough. He catches the bus every Monday through Friday. Willie Kimbrough has no choice because he uses a wheelchair, so it’s tough to navigate long distances on city sidewalks. As he’s leaving his job at a disabled-rights organization for the night, he and a couple of colleagues – one who’s vision-impaired and another in a wheelchair – head to a bus stop. They’ve all got plenty of criticisms of public transit. Take the bus stop across the road: It’s blocked by a trash can, and the sidewalk’s narrow. So when you roll off of the wheelchair lift, you’re likely to end up in a patch of grass, stuck.
“With obstacles like the trash can in the way, blocking the sidewalk,” says Kimbrough, “it’s impossible to get around there.”
Then there’s the waiting – and the weather. There’s no shelter at either stop, so with temperatures in the 40s and a stiff wind, the half hour between buses can seem like a very long time. And on the weekend? Forget it – some buses run every two hours, while others don’t run at all.
On the weekends, explains Kimbrough, “you have to find alternate transportation …you can’t afford to be late, you know!”
After nearly twenty minutes, the number 59 appears in the distance. The bus is finally on its way. But Kimbrough’s in for another annoyance: There are only two spots for wheelchairs, and one’s already occupied. So he lets his colleague roll onto the lift, and the driver checks with his dispatcher to find out how long Kimbrough’s going to have to wait. It’s going to be another half hour in the cold.
Disabled activists say they’d love to see better bus service in St. Louis: greater frequency, more space for wheelchairs, better bus stops. But unless voters actually decide to raise their own taxes – by voting for Proposition M – they’ll have to deal with worse service. Transit officials say a lot of cities are facing the same crisis, stemming from the same causes. First, the monthly cost of fuel for all those buses has quadrupled. Then there’s the Wall Street crisis.
Bob Baer, who runs the St. Louis system, says during the boom, transit agencies tried to improve their cash flow by investing in some exotic financial instruments. They were great until the economy tanked; now they cost money. Finally, there’s federal law, which specifies exactly how transit agencies have to make cuts.
“We can’t just cut buses, or trains, or call-a-ride,” says Baer, “you have to do it equitably. So, in effect, all the services we provide are going to get hit… Everything will be cut.”
Disabled activists worry most about cuts to that “call-a-ride” service – a network of vans that carry disabled riders who live too far away from a regular bus or train stop. Sarah Coyle, for example, who sits in her wheelchair in chilly pre-dawn darkness waiting for the van that takes her to work.
Coyle lives with her parents in a leafy suburb, more than a mile from the nearest bus stop, in a subdivision with no sidewalks. She worries about how she’ll deal with a service cut.
“I’m going to have to rely on my family,” she says. “And I’m very concerned about it, because my parents are getting older, and… it’s going to be harder on them and on me.”
For her, transit means the difference between utter dependence on others and a sense of freedom.
“It’s the ability to get to your job. To get to medical appointments, to participate in community life, without having to rely on other people,” she says. “The chance to be able to just go down the street… and hop on the bus and get to where you need to go.”
There’s a button pinned to the back of her chair. It reads, “Vote yes on Proposition M.” As the van trundles off into the twilight, taking her to work, she says she hopes her neighbors are willing to pay a few dollars more in taxes. So that she can get around on her own.