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Loop Trolley boosters say project is back on track, won't be derailed by lawsuit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 4, 2013 - The long-delayed Loop Trolley Project faced some high-profile challenges this year, most notably a stern warning from the Federal Transit Association that it could lose a crucial federal grant.

But University City businessman Joe Edwards -- one of the trolley's key backers – said he’s increasingly confident that the project will begin construction next year. That’s because handlers of the project met a Federal Transit Agency deadline to turn in required planning documentation.

“In a real concise statement, I am more optimistic than ever,” Edwards said. “The FTA has been wonderful to work with.”

The 2.2-mile, fixed-track trolley would run along Delmar east to DeBaliviere, down DeBaliviere to the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. Boosters such as Edwards say it could spark economic development in the immediate area – and serve as a potential catalyst for streetcars around the city.

But opponents have criticized the trolley’s cost and questioned its practicality. Some critics have filed a federal lawsuit against aspects of the plan, although it’s unknown what impact the lawsuit will have.

Still both Edwards and an official from East-West Gateway said if the FTA concludes that all the milestones are reached, construction could begin next year.

“St. Louis really needs to do interesting and good things to keep moving forward,” Edwards said. “And this is one of those projects that could be a protype for other areas in St. Louis. And we need to prove to the federal government, too, that we’re capable of doing this as a forward-thinking kind of project.”

Fits and stops

While Edwards has championed the Loop trolley venture since 1997, it came a lot closer to reality when the FTA awarded the Loop’s Transportation Development District a $25 million grant.

It’s also been supported by a number of public and private funding sources, most notably a 1-cent sales tax.

But earlier this May, officials with the FTA’s regional office in Kansas City sent a letter to Edwards and other groups associated with the project.

The message from FTA regional administrator Mokhtee Ahmad was blunt: The project had made “insufficient progress in bringing the project to competition.”

The letter said that East-West Gateway and the Loop’s TDD have "repeatedly failed to make reasonable progress on key project milestones.” Because of that, he continued, $22 million of the federal grant was in jeopardy of being yanked away.

“Absent a demonstration of local commitment to the project and progress toward meeting the terms of the grant agreement, FTA will have to consider withdrawing financial support from the project,” Ahmad said. “To demonstrate local commitment and satisfactory progress, the sponsors must provide to the FTA within 30 days of receipt of this letter renewed evidence that substantial progress to address longstanding technical capacity and capability deficiencies can in fact be achieved.”

Ahmad contended that Metro was the only local agency “sufficiently resourced” to implement the project on time. He then asked for a written organizational plan for delivering the project through final design and construction.

Edwards said that Metro’s Chris Poehler was given a leave of absence to work on the Loop Trolley. Poehler has done, Edwards said, “a magnificent job in a short period of time so that we could meet all of the federal requirements and deadlines.”

“Yesterday, we just FedExed our final deliverables to them,” Edwards said in an interview Thursday. “All the check-marked items to the FTA, they received it today on the proper deadline.

Jerry Blair – director of transportation for East-West Gateway -- said the crux of Ahmad’s letter was that the project handlers needed to provide the FTA with documentation about key aspects of the project.

“There’s a number of plans you have to prepare: an operations plan, a safety and security plan, a project management plan, a construction management plan. So the were also the financial plan. And all these things were done to a certain degree, but some of them we hadn’t finalized because of delays in the project,” Blair said.

Edwards and Blair said they expect the FTA to take a couple of weeks to review the documentation. The next step is to get permission from the FTA to put the project out to bid. 

“If everything is acceptable to FTA that we’ve submitted and they clear the way for us to access the grant, then we would put the project up for bid I would imagine early next year,” Blair said.  “And then construction could start as early as spring.”

Bidding, said Blair and Edwards, could be the “final unknown” before construction on the project potentially begins in February or March.

“The only thing that would jeopardize the project would be if we put it out for bid and the bids came in much higher than the revenues we have to pay for it,” Blair said. “That would be the only remaining big risk in the project.”

But Edwards said all of the project’s consultants said “that we have the funds to do it with an adequate contingency.”  He also said the level of details exercised through the documentation sent to the FTA could also be beneficial.

“They’re really good about getting down to real specific detail,” Edwards said. “I’m optimistic that our bids will come in where we think they would because  it’s detailed down to every single manhole cover. We’ve spent a lot of time and dozens of people have spent thousands of volunteer hours in addition to the paid hours. I’m pretty excited, really.”

Curve ball?

But the Loop Trolley project was thrown a bit of a legal curve ball last week when a federal lawsuit took aim at the project.

The lawsuit – filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri last week – argues that the voting formula to set up the Loop’s transportation district violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and portions of the Missouri Constitution. Property owners got to cast one vote per acre of land they owned -- giving Joe Edwards, the suit said, the most votes.

“The Loop Trolley District ... unlawfully permitted both registered voters and owners of real property within the proposed boundaries of the district to vote for its organization – regardless of whether those real property owners were also residents or registered voters within such boundaries,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also claims that:

  • The trolley can’t cross Lindell near DeBaliviere because an indenture prohibits commercial traffic on Lindell.
  • University City and St. Louis violated their charters by setting up the TDD through resolutions – as opposed to ordinances.
  • The current route of the trolley goes beyond boundaries authorized by the circuit court and approved by voters by extending beyond Kingsland in University City and south of Lindell in St. Louis.

The suit is asking the federal court to declare that the TDD has no authority “to build, maintain, and operate" a trolley outside the "Loop Trolley District’s boundaries.” It also seeks to halt the project “until and unless all required municipal permits and approvals are obtained.”
Former University City Councilwoman Elsie Beck Glickert – a plaintiff in the lawsuit – said in an interview that the main point of the lawsuit is to keep the trolley “within its voted district.”

“We want to ensure that they’re doing everything legally and it conforms to the law,” Glickert said. “And it would just impact our quality of life tremendously.”

Glickert previously told the Beacon that she supports the trolley “as a concept,” but thinks its route is too long. She’s called the Trolley project the “Folly Trolley,” and “The Streetcar Named No Desire to Nowhere.”

“I would hope that they would have to stay within their geographic boundaries,” Glickert said, when asked what would happen if the lawsuit is successful. “That’s the whole point of this. We don’t want them crossing Lindell destroying the History Museum. We don’t want them in the Historic District.”

Edwards said on Thursday that he wasn’t given a copy of the lawsuit – and that he only heard about it from reading a press release. He also said he was unsure what the lawsuit was trying to accomplish.

“This is five-year old news. The circuit court here in Missouri approved it,” Edwards said. “And yes, we did everything exactly according to the law. And they approved it. First of all, why five years later? That’s kind of interesting.”

“Until I see it, it’s hard to comment more than that,” he added. “But I don’t know why.”

Gauging impact of lawsuit

(Start update:) St. Louis University law professor Peter Salsich, an author of law books on land use and property, said in an interview on Tuesday that the lawsuit could further complicate the project.

“It’s certainly that kind of thing that can set you back a year or two,” said Salsich, referring to a potentially successsful lawsuit. “You think about Paul McKee, he had almost three years of litigation. Do people have the kind of… deep pockets and the sheer energy to keep going? And here you’ve got a project that’s already behind schedule. You just don’t know. But I would think it would be a substantial challenge.”

He said that state statutes “lay out a fairly precise way that people are supposed to go about establishing a transportation development district.” One thing that often gets brought up is “how much does my vote count” and “if I’m a resident, why should non-residents get to vote?”

“So you have this clash of interests,” Salsich said. “If you’ve got a situation where you’ve got people owning substantial property in a particular area, if you’re going to impose taxes and you’re going to require a vote, then they probably ought to be able to vote.”

Allocating votes per acre, Salsich said, is a “classic way that shareholders of corporations” get allowed “to vote to have their interest represented.”

“The constitutional issue that would be raised would be ‘is that a reasonable condition of the landowners’ interest or is that a deformation of my rights to vote… in kind of an arbitrary way?’”  Salsich said.  “In other words, are you depriving me of property without due process of law by giving this 10-acre person 10 votes while I only get one vote,” he added. 

Could a suit stop the project? Salsich said it would not be out of the question for a judge to halt construction while the lawsuit is under consideration.

“Now of course, one thing that might happen is the court might refuse any kind of effort to enjoin or block or stop the project while the lawsuit is going forward,” Salsich said. “But then you run into the question: If you’re asking people to buy bonds of our district, are they going to buy them under the cloud of this lawsuit?”

“So even if the lawsuit ultimately doesn’t succeed, it’s going to probably throw a real monkey wrench into that particular project,” he added. (End update)

Not so distant future?

If everything goes according to plan and construction does start next February or March, Edwards said the entire project should be finished within a year.

That timeline is possible, he said, by “laying it out and having several crews working on it at the same time.”

“It’s not like light rail or highway construction where you have to dig way down or anything,” Edwards said. “This is a pretty simple and straightforward thing where you take up two lanes of a street on one side, while the other sides are open to traffic and go down like 11 or 13 inches. Lay the tracks, repave it, restripe it and go onto the next section. And a two-block section can be done, depending on weather, in as quickly as a two-week period.”

“So it won’t a create a burden to businesses or visitors to the area, except for lack of parking on that two block area on both sides for that two-week period, which is not a big imposition or anything,” Edwards said. “It’s wonderful long-term.”

As he’s said before, Edwards is hoping that the Loop Trolley project becomes a catalyst of sorts for a more expansive streetcar system through the city and county.

For “every modern city that’s going to be successful, one of the key things is public transit,” Edwards said. “And good clean electric transit really appeals to young people and to everybody in general, I think. The cities that have good transit are very successful and their neighborhoods are stabilized for hundreds of years at a time – not just the up and down swings.”

“We’re a city of great neighborhoods,” he added. “The more we can connect to MetroLink and to each other, it’s grand. It’s just going to be wonderful.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.