Messenger: NAACP seeks Justice Department help for St. Louis transit funding
It was early 2009 and the Great Recession was taking its toll. Metro was cutting public transit routes in St. Louis, and Gwen Moore started getting complaints from her students.
She was teaching business and international management classes at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and many of her students said they were having a hard time getting to class or to work with the reduced transit routes and schedule.
Moore approached the problem like an academic. She dug into the numbers, trying to understand why there weren’t more transit opportunities in St. Louis, especially in neighborhoods serving people at or near the poverty line. Her research focused on state transportation funding, and what she found made her mad.
“What I discovered was, the funds were not being distributed appropriately,” Moore said.
In fact, like in many areas of state spending, St. Louis and other cities in Missouri — the places where more people live and most of the economic activity in the state is — were getting (and still are) much less than their fair share of transportation dollars. “They need to spend the money where people actually live and drive.”
In August, Moore, as head of the better transportation coalition, and Esther Haywood, president of the St. Louis County NAACP, each wrote U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., and asked him to seek Justice Department intervention into Missouri’s disparate road funding.
To Moore and Haywood, this is a civil rights issue. By failing to fund transportation fairly in Missouri’s biggest cities, where the majority of black residents live, the state is out of compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, they argue.
“For half a century, long past the civil rights era, transportation in Missouri has discriminated against people living in urban areas,” Haywood wrote.
Moore wants the Justice Department to come back to St. Louis and follow the model it did in assessing police and court disparities in Ferguson. Just an investigation by the Justice Department viewing transportation through a civil rights lens — which the Ferguson Commission also called for — might put pressure on lawmakers to return more transportation dollars to St. Louis and Kansas City, where they can have a greater impact on the state’s economy.
I wrote in yesterday’s wrap-up that national defense is the political elbow grease used to push a fat piece of legislation through a thin opening. I forgot to include civil rights in that. There’s nothing the Federal government can’t do if whatever it wants to do wears national defense or civil rights garments. Find a way to mash them together, and Uncle Sam can go to town.
The irony of this story is that the reason for the 2009 transit cuts was because the MissingLink extension was way late and way over budget, thanks to affirmative action contractors, and this ate a big hole in Metro’s budget. The story does have a happy ending; not long after that, the city and county voters were magnanimous enough to pass a sales tax to cover up those holes, and the previous cuts were reversed.
The reason why state transportation funding is disproportionately spent in rural areas is because a disproportionate percentage of Missouri’s state primary and secondary highway mileage is in rural areas. And now, almost all of the failing bridges are in rural areas.