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Bi-State takes control of troubled Loop Trolley, must restart operations by June

The Loop Trolley during a test drive on June 13, 2018.
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
“I’m gritting my teeth, just like everyone else," Bi-State Development Agency President and CEO Taulby Roach said Friday. "I’m trying to be very upfront about the difficulty of this project."

With a federal deadline to jump-start the Loop Trolley less than two weeks away, a regional agency has stepped up to take control of the project.

Commissioners of the Bi-State Development Agency, which operates the Metrolink and bus systems in the St. Louis region, voted Friday to manage the Loop Trolley through June 2025.

Under a newly revised agreement with the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District, the agency will oversee the trolley and ensure it operates four days a week — but will not be financially responsible for the project. The move aims to help the St. Louis region avoid jeopardizing federal funding for future transit projects, after the Federal Transportation Administration warned that local officials would be required to pay back tens of millions of dollars in grant funding unless the trolley resumed operations.

Bi-State Development declined to take control of the 2.2-mile trolley line two years ago, citing the financial burden it would have placed on the agency.

President and CEO Taulby Roach called it a “tough and troubled project” during Friday’s board meeting, but he argued the region cannot risk losing future federal funding.

“Avoiding a federal default is key to the future, not just of transit in the region, both in Missouri and Illinois, but also for Bi-State Development,” Roach said. “I’m gritting my teeth, just like everyone else. I’m trying to be very upfront about the difficulty of this project, but I’m also trying to point everyone to a long-term vision of transit.”

Local officials must devise a plan by March 1 to run the trolley at least four days a week, beginning in June. Without such a plan in place, the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District and Loop Trolley Co. could be required to pay back more than $37 million in federal funding — over half the amount used for construction costs.

Bi-State Commissioner Derrick Keith Cox, a board member from Madison County, said the agency should not be responsible for a money-losing project that is “constantly breaking down.”

“I don't want to get us sidetracked with everything that we have going on for transit in the greater St. Louis area,” said Cox, the only commissioner to vote against the proposal. “This is going to cost resources. It’s going to cost money. It's going to cost our time and energy.”

The revised agreement will require Bi-State Development to operate the trolley 32 hours per week, Thursday to Sunday, through June 30, 2025.

The agency will not assume liability for the project or use any of its own funds, major selling points for Bi-State Commissioner Nate Johnson.

“Because we're positioned to support this with very limited risk, I think that it is incumbent upon us to help out,” Johnson said. “It's going to benefit us in the future by being a part of this project, to hopefully bring it across the finish line.”

The Loop Trolley Transportation Development District has also reapplied for $1.26 million in federal funding from the East-West Gateway Council of Governments to support the trolley project, a request the council denied in October. If approved, the funds would be used to help pay Bi-State Development for managing the project.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award.