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Will Trolleys Come Back To St. Louis' Loop?

Trolleys are making a comeback across the country from Seattle to Tampa with promises of economic development and walkable neighborhoods.

In St. Louis an effort to bring the fixed tracks back to University City’s Delmar Loop began in 1997.

After the $44 million project landed a big federal grant, it seemed St. Louis would be home to trolleys again.

But as St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman reports the proposed Loop Trolley has hit some bumps.

Late this summer the vintage trolley that sits along Delmar Avenue seemed ready to come back to life as Joe Edwards showed off its signature sound. 

In July 2010, developer Joe Edwards cut a ceremonial trolley cake following the announcement that the St. Louis area received nearly $25 million in federal dollars for a new trolley system. The system is scheduled to open in 2012. (UPI/ Bill Greenblatt)
Credit (UPI/Bill Greenblatt)
In July 2010, developer Joe Edwards cut a ceremonial trolley cake following the announcement that the St. Louis area received nearly $25 million in federal dollars for a new trolley system.

“Just hearing that bell, it always warms people’s hearts,” Edwards said after the bell faded.

The Loop’s pony-tail-sporting businessman and developer had spent 15 years pushing for a fixed track on Delmar and down DeBaliviere to the Missouri History Museum.

He had his sales pitch down pat.

“This whole area built up around the streetcar system, and why not bring it back because there’s a high density of population and to connect the Loop to Forest Park, and it will invite investment all along the route,” Edwards said.

Yet just when Edwards seemed close to realizing his dream things took a turn this fall.

News broke that the Federal Transportation Administration was threatening to pull a $22 million grant if the project didn’t make more progress.

Then late last month Edwards and the Loop Trolley Company were hit with a federal lawsuit by four plaintiffs.

“I love trolleys. They were wonderful forms of transportation,” said plaintiff Elsie Beck Glickert, one of the plaintiffs. “They went somewhere, they had routes. This is the Streetcar Named No Desire, Transportation No Place.”  

Glickert, a University City councilwoman from 1969-1980, remembers riding streetcars on Delmar before they were discontinued in 1966, but she thinks the proposed 2.2 mile fixed track will only add to congestion in the Loop. 

Credit (Maria Altman/St. Louis Public Radio)
One of two Peter Witt cars once used in Milan, Italy that the Loop Trolley Company has purchased and renovated. Joe Edwards says both cars are ready to be in service again. “If there were tracks there right now we could turn the switch on and have the electric go through and they could start going right down the street,” Edwards said.

Her lawsuit centers on a vote taken back in 2007 that created the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District and a 1-cent sales tax to fund it.

Glickert and her co-plaintiffs argue it was unconstitutional to allow non-resident property owners to vote and to give more votes to those who own more property, including Joe Edwards.

“This is all for the benefit of property owners east of Rosedale and it’s on the backs of University City people, and I just think it should be legal,” Glickert said.

Edwards says he expects the suit will get thrown out quickly because he says the vote was legal.

“Why now? I must question the timing,” he said during a recent interview. “This occurred five years ago and it was supervised by the courts. We followed every rule the courts laid out for us.”

In the meantime Edwards remains optimistic, saying he expects the FTA to release that $22 million grant and let the Loop Trolley Company put out for bids on the project.

But others question whether the lawsuit could throw the trolley project off track.

Peter Salsich is a law professor at St. Louis University who specializes in land use laws.

“I mean all you have to do I think is look at the experience of Paul McKee’s Northside project, that was tied up in the courts for close three years,” he said.

Salsich says if a federal judge won’t throw the suit out it could take months or even years to resolve it, and he says investors may not be as likely to come forward in the meantime.

Yet enthusiasm for the project remains high in the Loop.

Asking those passing by landmarks like the Tivoli Theatre or Blueberry Hill, it’s nearly impossible to find someone who doesn’t want to see trolleys here:

  • “I would like to see it happen. I think the more modes of transportation in the city the better,” said Nathaniel Farrell who teaches at Washington University.
  • “I think it’d be a good idea,” said Jonathan Edwards, a college student taking photographs in the Loop. “I’d leave my car somewhere else. Hop on and ride up and down.”
  • “I would think it would be good just increase travel for students and people coming down here. I think it’d be great,” said Sarah Bliss, an employee at COCA.

When or if trolleys rumble down this street again, though, remains to be seen. 
This story is part of How We Move, an ongoing series on transportation and infrastructure in the St. Louis Region. Have an idea for a story for the series? Email us at news@stlpublicradio.org.

Follow Maria Altman on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.