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Loop Trolley Project: On the right track or soon to be derailed?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2012 - In a week, the Federal Transit Administration will determine whether the St. Louis Loop Trolley Project is feasible enough to move forward -- but even if the FTA gives the project a thumbs up, not all University City residents will be happy.

If it is deemed viable, the project could move forward. The Loop trollies would travel down a 2.2 mile stretch that begins at the Lion Gates and then heads east onto Delmar to DeBaliviere. After heading south on DeBalivere, the trolley would then circle around the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.

Some residents who spoke out at the public meeting were concerned by the trolley's impact on street parking, traffic congestion and emergency vehicles. Others pointed out that the construction may interrupt businesses in the Loop.

Another concern was the project's $41.8 million price tag -- although more than half of that cost would be covered by the $25 million grant the city received from the federal government. University City Mayor Shelley Welsch said on her blog that $2,880,000 of the money went toward the system's design, done under the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, which partnered with the Loop Trolley Co. to help with the design.

Breaking ground this summer?

Doug Campion, the project's manager, said the goal is to have the project ready to go with construction starting by end of August.

Some say that when a project is backed by businessman Joe Edwards, the same person who's responsible for some of the Loop's biggest attractions such as the Pageant and Blueberry Hill, it's difficult to imagine things going wrong.

That wasn't necessarily the case Wednesday night when some U. City residents acknowledged Edwards' accomplishments but disagreed with this project.

"I have nothing but praise for Joe Edwards. I have called him in public this century's E.G. Lewis. He's a visionary. ... Having said that, no one can have 100 percent of their ideas be wonderful. And I really don't think this one is," said Eleanor Mullin, president of the Historical Society of University City.

Mullin said the tourist appeal would not be lost if the project opted for a less expensive alternative: double-decker buses, or trolley-like buses, without a permanent track.

"In today's world, I honestly find it an unconscionable abuse of tax dollars to spend $40 million for a (2.2-mile) streetcar track," Mullin said.

But Edwards said the alternative, less permanent look-a-likes don't produce the same results.

"Feasibility studies have proven that, assuming you can find the money to build a fixed-track project like this, which does attract investment because of its fixed-track nature, the operating costs are almost identical to a rubber-tire, diesel-fume spewing look-a-like," Edwards said. "And ridership is 70 percent greater" on the trolley.

Who pays to maintain?

The project's annual maintenance and operation costs are estimated to be about $1.1 million, Campion said.

Thirty percent of funding for O&M costs would come from passengers' fares. Campion estimates a single ticket would be $2. Another 6 percent would come from an estimated $70,000 received from advertisements, promotions and sponsors. 

Under the terms of a Transportation Development District formed in 2008, businesses within it agreed to a 1 percent sales tax increase -- revenue that makes up 64 percent of O&M costs, Campion said.

Campion said the trolley would serve as transportation not only for tourists but those who live and work in the area. It's also a win-win for everybody because of the effect it has on neighborhoods, Edwards said.

He said when this idea first came up in 1997, people were asking what could be done to make people invest in the area of Delmar east of Skinker. Now, no one is investing in that area because of its high crime rates, which spill back into the Loop, he said at the meeting.

"We don't want the neighborhoods to keep going up and down with crime and vacant apartments and vacant homes and storefronts," he said. "It would take something big (to change all that) and this is one of those things."

Questions remain

Despite the potential to improve neighborhoods, the trolley project still upset a number of people at Wednesday's meeting.

Elsie Glickert, a University City resident who has spoken against the project before, expressed her concern about fire trucks or ambulances safely maneuvering around the fixed-track trolley.

Others expressed concern about how construction could affect businesses in the Loop.

"People are really concerned about how the income of their businesses are going to be affected. ... When people come and hear jackhammers, it won't be a pleasant place to have lunch or have a drink ... It's going to be a mess," one person said.

Another asked if off-street parking between Delmar Station and DeBaliviere is planned to relieve parking and traffic in the Loop itself.

Edwards said additional parking is being discussed but nothing is concrete yet.

And while some believed the construction would disrupt the Loop's atmosphere, others such as property owner Henry Warshaw said he couldn't be more excited for the project.

"We think this will be a terrific addition to University City," he said. "In this particular case, I really believe we are 100 percent -- not to use a pun -- but 100 percent right on track."

Dean Smith, a University City resident, said many loose ends surfaced at the meeting that still need to be worked out but thinks the trolley can be a good companion to the vibrant area east of Kingsland.

But, he said, west of Kingsland, where there are learning institutions, government centers and religion congregations, is "quite a different area" from the Loop. He and a few others at the meeting said they would like for the trolley to stop at Kingsland to avoid the historical district near the City Civic Plaza.

That tied into a concern about how traffic would be affected by the roundabout that would be built near City Hall at Kingsland and Delmar. But Welsch said on her blog that it's been"recommended that the roundabout remain," and that this part of the project, which is grant-funded, would increase safety at that intersection.

Another U. City resident spent just 10 seconds at the podium but his question received much applause: "Say it gets built and it goes bust. Who's then responsible?"

Edwards said he believes the project can’t go bust with the setup in place.

“By connecting the 12 million visitors of Forest Park … the odds of that happening are very slim,” he said. “The whole structure was set up so it wouldn’t have a negative impact on either the citizens of University City or the city of St. Louis except in a positive way.”

Lauren Leone is a Beacon intern.