Arch Ground Already Costing Saint Louis More than Promised
Recently, the Post-Dispatch reported that Great River Greenways, a regional, taxpayer-funded organization, could be on the hook for millions of dollars more than expected in the Arch Grounds project. Great River Greenways has long been part of the funding basis for “ArchRiverCity,” with dedicated funds coming from a sales tax passed expressly for that purpose (Prop P). But it turns out now that operating costs are exceeding what was originally budgeted.
To keep the Arch improvements on track, the director of Great River Greenways committed the organization (unilaterally) to cover half of the additional expenses (an extra $1.3 million a year). The organization will likely have to divert money from other sources to cover new costs. But those sources were supposed to advance trail construction and maintenance in the region, which might now be short-changed.
If all this seems convoluted, that’s by design. Perhaps out of fear that giving residents a reasonable estimate of costs—and a cautious estimate of benefits—might raise questions among the public, regional planners and politicians play shell games. Capital costs are understated and sliced up between levels of governments, or shunted off to quasi-governmental taxing districts (Great River Greenways, Downtown STL, etc.). Ancillary, but often necessary, parts of the development get moved to other parts of city budgets or ignored. Consistently, operation and maintenance is improperly budgeted for. All this so the local leadership can tell the public that they will receive a huge economic boon from a project they won’t have pay much, or anything, to get.
This leaves projects like ArchRiverCity, or the Loop Trolley, or the Kansas City Streetcar, or the Edward Jones Dome, or the Riverfront Stadium plan, with unrealistic budgets that leave everything to chance. When something goes wrong in construction (like delivery delays/cost overruns), or when maintenance expenses outstrip revenue sources, the projects have mini-heart attacks and taxpayers are on the hook. In the case of the Arch grounds, taxpayers will end up paying more through taxes diverted by Great River Greenways, a contingency that was neither discussed nor agreed to by any voters or any elected officials. With the number of extra-governmental taxing districts like Great River Greenways growing by the year, it is ever easier for residents’ money to be shunted from project to project with little public oversight.
Sustainable and efficient civic improvement programs rely on transparency and maintaining the trust of residents. One would like to assume good motives, but leadership in Kansas City and the Saint Louis region often seem willing to back convoluted funding plans (with obscured costs/benefits) in order to get a yes vote from a confused public. In doing so, they reduce transparency, which results in a cynical electorate. This is a recipe for dysfunction and waste.
Commenting on ArchRiverCity funding, one Great River Greenways board member stated flatly,
“I don’t feel like I’ve been sandbagged…This isn’t the only project that we don’t have enough money to do maintenance on.”
Saint Louis residents should take that as a warning.