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Federal decision green lights the Loop trolley

This article first appeared in th St. Louis Beacon,  Sept. 4, 2012 -  Removing the Loop Trolley project’s last major hurdle, the Federal Transit Administration decided yesterday to award the Loop’s Transportation Development District (TDD) a $25 million grant.

The news was met with celebration by the Trolley’s proponents, including Joe Edwards, the Loop businessman who has championed the project for over a decade, and Robert Archibald, the president of the Missouri History Museum.

“The major work is done,” Edwards said, referring to the project’s negotiations with regulatory agencies. “I’m just thrilled for what it means for the future of St. Louis on all sorts of levels.”

The FTA was due to make a decision by the end of the month, and although its approval was widely expected, the agency’s announcement came earlier than expected.

“It’s wonderful,” Edwards said. “It’s nice to have that extra bit of breathing room and not go down to the wire.”

The project has encountered sustained opposition from many residents who live on either end of the route, which begins across from the University City Library and ends at the Missouri History Museum.

Edwards struck a conciliatory tone, saying that the project’s leaders were “very sensitive” to the concerns of residents along the route. But he said he doesn’t think the trolley route will undergo any more major changes.

Moving forward, Edwards said the Loop Trolley Company still has to put the project out for bidding. After that, he said he hopes to break ground in November.

The Loop Trolley project has had to do some backtracking in the past couple months, but Joe Edwards, who has spearheaded the effort since 1997, says he can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I’m just excited September’s coming,” said Edwards, the owner of popular Loop attractions Blueberry Hill and the Pageant. “That’ll be the month that the final checklists will be checked off.”

The biggest item on that list is the $25 million grant the project is counting on from the Federal Transit Administration. By the end of September, the FTA is due to decide whether or not to award the grant, which would cover more than half of the Trolley project’s $44 million construction cost. Most of the rest of the money will come from federal and local tax credits.

The FTA decision is the last big hurdle the Loop Trolley project faces before construction can begin. And barring any unexpected surprises, the grant will likely come through.

“As it stands now, we expect the grant,” project manager Doug Campion said.

And after that?

“Full speed ahead,” Edwards said. He wants to have the project ready to be put out to bid on by the end of October and to break ground on it sometime in November.

The trolley’s planned 2.2-mile route would begin at the Missouri History Museum, just off Lindell Boulevard in Forest Park. From there it would travel north on DeBaliviere Avenue, then turn west on Delmar Boulevard, where it would pass Skinker Boulevard and then end just west of Kingsland Avenue, in front of the University City Public Library. Streetcars would travel up and down the route, arriving at 20-minute intervals until 1 a.m. 

Neighborhood concerns

But not everyone is on board. The staunchest opponents of the project live near either end of the planned route – in the residential areas of University City or on Lindell Boulevard.

Russell Lauer is a trustee of the Lindell neighborhood association. Lauer supports the idea of the trolley, but he said he and other residents felt left out of the planning process.

“There weren’t a lot of opinions expressed,” he said. According to Lauer, the trolley’s backers had an attitude of, “We’re going full speed ahead and nobody’s stopping us.”

In the past two months, pressure from Lauer and other residents has had some effect. The Loop Trolley Company, which, along with the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District, is the formal body controlling the project, cut the proposed route of the trolley on both ends. Instead of circling around the museum, the trolley now just stops there; and in University City, the route now ends a block earlier than before.

The route could see further changes in coming weeks, especially near Lindell. That neighborhood is built on the so-called Catlin tract, which was turned over to the city in 1909 in an ordinance that includes the condition that no commercial traffic would be allowed to pass through the street without the agreement of the residents.

Lauer says the neighborhood is willing to negotiate.

“There’s nothing that’s been agreed to,” he said, “but both sides want to.”

For the project to be derailed or drastically altered, the FTA would have to deny the $25 million grant.

At this stage, Campion said, the main reason the FTA would deny the grant was if the project faced widespread public opposition or if it were threatened by a serious lawsuit. The project has strong public support from commercial property owners along the Loop, as well as most public officials in St. Louis and University City. And the second roadblock seems less likely with Lauer and the Lindell association ready to talk business. Though a University City neighborhood is still pushing for more modifications.

Residents who have voiced opposition to the project say they have not gotten satisfactory answers to several questions:

  • Will anyone ride the trolleys?
  • What if the project goes broke?
  • Will there be extra traffic?
  • Isn’t the Metro system enough?
  • Won’t the overhead wires electrifying the trolleys be ugly?
  • Won’t the trolleys disrupt existing neighborhoods and historic buildings?
  • And why does the route need to extend beyond the Loop and pass Kingsland Avenue?

Elsie Glickert, a University City resident and former City Council member there, calls the Trolley project the “Folly Trolley,” and “The Streetcar Named No Desire to Nowhere.” She also supports the trolley “as a concept,” but thinks its route is too long.
“The History Museum – you can go there on any day and shoot off a cannon and nobody would notice,” she said. Estimating the price of a round-trip ticket as $5, she asked “Why would you pay $5 to go nowhere?”

Edwards doesn’t see it that way. To him, the museum stop would allow the trolley to “connect one of the 10 great streets in America” – the Delmar Loop – “and Forest Park, with its 12 million [yearly] visitors.”  

Of course, the two locations already have nearby MetroLink stops and bus service.

“It’s duplicating public transit,” said Tom Sullivan, who lives in University City and opposes the project. “I can’t see what type of benefit that would bring.”

Part of the Trolley project’s mission is to attract investment to the part of Delmar east of Skinker, which has been economically depressed for years. To that end, Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri History Museum, said the permanence of rail tracks would attract residents and businesses in a way that bus routes, which can be changed, wouldn’t.

“Once somebody puts the tracks down, you know that trolley’s not going to move,” he said.

Beneath those tracks, the trolley project is also in discussions to lay the framework for the Loop Media Hub, which would potentially provide much faster internet speeds to businesses along the route.  

However, the project’s supporters are vague about what happens if the trolleys don’t make enough money. The project’s annual operating budget will be $1.1 million, most of which will come from a 1-percent sales tax approved by businesses in the Loop’s Transportation Development District.

Still, planners do expect about 30 percent of the budget – or $330,000 – to come from ticket sales. Edwards said he thinks that number is “very conservative,” but says if the Loop Trolley Company, which is the official administrator of the project, fell short, he expects the difference could be made up by increasing revenues from the sales tax.

Past that, “there is no backstop," Archibald said. "We have to make this work." 

If everything goes as planned, he’ll get his chance sometime in the middle of 2014.