Saturday, March 28, 2009

It's a Sad Day When St. Louis is the Lead Story on

I did not write the following. John King, chief national correspondent and host of CNN's "State of the Union" did. I heard a representative from Metro speak at a Board of Alderman meeting last Tuesday and was completely blown away by the fact that my mayor and the board accepted his words with little comment. I wanted to scream that the world as we know is about to alter completely for many more people than we will ever be able to comprehend. As Joni Mitchell sang, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."

BALLWIN, Missouri (CNN) -- For Stuart and Dianne Falk, it is a two-bus, 45-minute trip into downtown St. Louis to head to the gym and to volunteer at a theater group.

And it is a lifeline that ends Friday.

"To be saddled, to be imprisoned, that is what it is going to feel like," says Stuart Falk. "It is going to feel like being punished for something we didn't do."

Stuart and Dianne Falk are confined to wheelchairs. And the bus route that takes them downtown, and to one of the few tastes of personal freedom they have, is being eliminated because of a funding crunch.

In all, two dozen bus routes are being eliminated outright effective March 30. Numerous other routes have been shortened or otherwise modified, including less frequent runs. Light rail service schedules also have been scaled back as part of an effort to close a $51 million funding shortfall.

The reasons for the funding crunch have little to do with President Obama, or the federal government at all for that matter. But there are several connections to the big national political debates of the past several months, stretching back to last fall.

It was then that St. Louis County voters were asked to vote in favor of a small tax increase to add funding for bus routes and other mass transit operations in the bedroom communities surrounding the city of St. Louis.

Backers were optimistic, but then saw the mood change as the struggles on Wall Street mounted, and dropping 401(k) balances made voters more stingy. It didn't help, these backers contend, that anger at the first installment of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout also was festering on Election Day.

Now, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley worries the cutbacks will have an adverse effect on an already struggling area economy.

"The worse case scenario to me is this, if we don¹t get people to goods and services, that means businesses will close their doors, that means more jobs are lost," Dooley told us in an interview on a light rail platform in Clayton just outside the city.

Dooley also said mass transit cutbacks make it harder to attract new businesses.

"We're talking about economic development and entrepreneurship: Who is going to come to St. Louis if you can¹t get people back and forth to work?" Dooley said.

Efforts to get the state to help close the budget gap have failed. And while many of those affected see it is a perfect use of the federal stimulus funds the president says are meant to create and save jobs, such spending is not allowed.

Stimulus money can be used for new mass transit capital projects, such as building new stations or buying new buses. But the money cannot be used for operational costs, meaning it cannot be used to keep existing routes open.

"No, I don¹t think that is right. Of course, that is not right," is Dooley's view. "I mean at the end of the day, it's about creating jobs and opportunity. ... Could the stimulus bill be of a great help to us? No question about it."

Without any cash infusion, Metro says it has no choice but to cut back from 9,125 bus stops to 6,801, significantly cutting back its reach into the outer ring of St. Louis County.

Riding the buses this week offered a glimpse at the impact.

At one stop Wednesday, a handful of developmentally disabled passengers boarded outside a local facility where they work. One told CNN she optimistic "something will get done about it" but said she isn't sure how she is supposed to get around after Friday.

Kimberly Barge is a staff attorney at Paraquad, the gym where the Falks and other local disabled residents attend classes.

"People are frustrated, angry -- almost to the point of hopeless in some cases because there aren't many other alternatives for the disability community as far as transportation goes," Barge told CNN.

Jean McPherson boarded the bus with her infant daughter. The 20-year-old is going back to school to get her high school diploma and though short on cash, she says she is now forced to explore buying a used car.

"I might end up losing my job or not being able to take my daughter to day care," is how she sees the consequence of her bus route being shortened so that it no longer stretches out to her community. "You can't afford a car; that is why you use public transportation. So a lot of people are going to be in a bad situation."

And the impact goes beyond Metro riders. Some 200 drivers also are slated to lose their jobs

Shaking her head, Dianne Falk offers this analysis: "That doesn't seem like what (President) Obama wants."

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Kinda Cheating...

I've been neglecting my blog and my writing of late due to the exhaustion that comes with a new job. But the itch to write has come back, but I saw this and thought it expressed my thoughts better than I could.

Taken from

(CNN) -- As the country frets about extricating itself from the financial mess, there is one group of Americans to whom the rest of us owe the most sincere words of apology.

That group consists of the oldest of our fellow citizens -- the men and women who went through the Great Depression when they were young, who fought and endured World War II when they were just a little older, and who had hoped for a sense of peace and tranquility in their final years on this earth.

They don't deserve what they are going through. You hear it again and again from money experts: Take the long view of the economy. If you don't need cash from your stock market accounts in the next five to 10 years, leave it in there. Time will heal our current woes -- the economy, even when it's in tatters, runs in cycles. Just wait it out and be patient. Especially young people -- fiscal stability will arrive again in your lifetime. You'll see.

Nice words. Yet they leave out that one group of people -- the people who have a right to be terrified when they are told the economy will only be brutal in the short term. They leave out the people to whom the short term is all they have: our parents. Our grandparents. The men and women who never should have had to worry about their personal security again.

It's never wise to generalize, yet it is safe to say that, as a group, the men and women who endured the Depression and World War II played it straight when it came to putting their trust in financial institutions. They didn't try to game the system; they didn't believe in esoteric money schemes. As a group, they were cautious, because the two defining national events of their lives taught them that you can never really count on anything. They watched their own parents suffer during the Depression, they went overseas for years on end when our nation asked them to save the world, and when they came home, to the prosperity of the Eisenhower years, they crossed their fingers and hoped the good times were not an illusion.

The mistakes and tricks and reckless gambles of the supposedly sophisticated masters of Wall Street have wounded these men and women, many of whom, before the last year, had never even heard the names of the men who ran the biggest investment banks and brokerage firms. Which is why what those oldest Americans are going through is so unfair. Once more, in a lifetime that has been filled with sacrifices, they are having to pay the terrible price for decisions in which they had no say.

For a while, after Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation" focused belated attention on the quietly heroic lives of our parents and grandparents, it finally seemed that the oldest Americans were being allowed to take a victory lap. One of the points Brokaw made was that, for all the pain those men and women lived through, they seldom complained. They just soldiered on.

That appeared to be the elegiac theme of their final chapter: a warm acknowledgment by us, to whom they gave a better world, that we understood and honored their steadfastness -- that we appreciated and were moved by the uncomplaining way they had made it through their hardest years.

We didn't realize that they would be asked to do it again, in 2009 -- we didn't realize that our parents and grandparents, the vestiges of their retirement income suddenly diminished and threatened, would be asked once more to stoically accept hardships they had done nothing to bring upon themselves.

Think of the disdain they must feel for the Wall Street titans who have hurt them. When they hear about a brokerage executive who spends $1,400 on a wastebasket, their first thought undoubtedly is not that the man has taken advantage of his shareholders, or of the federal government. Their first thought -- remember, these men and women were children of the Depression -- is that the man must be a fool, a complete and utter sucker, to pay someone $1,400 for such an item. If you grew up having nothing, your contempt for such an idiotic expenditure is just about absolute. And you wonder about a society in which a person who would spend money that way is expected to prudently handle the money of others.

All that the oldest Americans asked for, in their final years, is a sense of safety, of stability. Twice in the nation's history, they knew what it was like to go to sleep night after night with their stomachs knotted in fear. What we as a country owed them was nights, at the end, when they never again had to feel that dread in the darkness.

Now they are feeling it, and there is nothing that we -- their sons and daughters, their grandsons and granddaughters -- can do to convince them that their fear in the night is groundless. What they are being forced to go through now is -- in the most elemental sense of this word -- a shame. I hope they know how sorry we are.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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