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Loop and downtown trolleys on track to spark development, say supporters

Brent Jones | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 7, 2013: Construction of the Loop trolley could begin this fall and be completed next year -- despite the withdrawal of the Missouri History Museum’s $1 million pledge to help fund the line between the Delmar Loop and Forest Park.

Businessman Joe Edwards, the force behind the development of the Delmar Loop and leader of the effort to build the trolley line, said the loss was only a slight bump in the road.

“It was frustrating,” he said in an interview after a Citizens for Modern Transit event Thursday called “Meet Me in St. Louis on a Trolley, Streetcar or Bus Rapid Transit.” About 65 people attended.

“Any time you lose that kind of money on a project, it’s frustrating," said Edwards. "But it’s not the end of the world. We had enough contingency built in.”

Still, until the project is put out to bid, Edwards acknowledged, “We won’t know for sure if we have enough contingency funds to cover the loss,” adding: “We’re also raising money quietly elsewhere, too, to help make up for it.”

The 2.2 mile, fixed-track trolley would run along Delmar east to the Missouri History Museum on DeBaliviere. The History Museum pulled its pledge last September after public criticism of then President Robert Archibald’s compensation and the museum’s $875,000 purchase of property from former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.

Proponents of the trolley say it would help push development farther along Delmar, extending the Loop East. Opponents scoff at the suggestion, call it an overpriced toy and question who will ride the slow-moving trolley when driving is faster and easier.

Edwards said development is already on the uptick in the area. He cited Washington University’s plan to build student housing on the city/county border, a mixed use project under construction at Hamilton and Delmar and the Gotham development, which includes rehab of a former hotel and construction of a new mixed use building.

Edwards, who said he came up with the idea of the trolley in 1997 while attending a charette on how to revitalize Delmar east of Skinker, was one of three speakers on the panel.

He called the trolley “a relatively inexpensive way to connect neighborhoods to each other and neighborhoods to other transit options.”

Steve Smith, CEO of the Lawrence Group, and a organizer of the St. Louis streetcar project to put streetcars in downtown St. Louis, likes to talk about streetcars as “catalyzing” development.

Downtown St. Louis secured private funding for a feasibility study for a streetcar project, which a consultant wrapped up recently. In April the East-West Gateway Council of Governments added the streetcar project to its long-range transit plan. Supporters are now working toward an environmental assessment, which the project needs to get federal money.

The downtown streetcar would run along Olive and Lindell from 14th Street to Euclid Avenue with a branch line along 14th Street from St. Louis Avenue to Metro’s Civic Center Transit Center. The line would have a head start on spurring development because of the existing population concentration in the area, Smith said. That would bring development “sooner rather than later,” he added estimating that “conservatively” the plan could bring $540 million in development in the first five years and $2.1 billion in development over 20 years.

One of the project’s goals is to increase the housing in the central core “as well as the jobs that will follow,” Smith said. “You can imagine all those empty lots up north (being developed), literally being able to walk out of your townhouse and (going to) work at BJC, downtown, SLU Sigma Aldrich, midtown and other places.”

He called the area from Jefferson to Compton a “no man’s land” that would fill in “dramatically” if the streetcar line is built. “We would start thinking of downtown of not ending necessarily at Jefferson but almost merging with midtown,” he added.

The line would complement a drive by Cortex, the life sciences research district between the Central West End and Grand Center, to have a MetroLink station built there, Smith said. The two are far enough apart that they wouldn’t compete for funding, he added.

The project would also enhance the walkability of the route, and if funding is in place, high-speed fiber optic lines could be added along the route when the line is built, Smith said.

He estimated the downtown streetcar plan is about four years behind Edwards’ Loop trolley plan. The plan currently calls for construction in 2016 and 2017 with the streetcar line opening that year or the next.

Smith suggested connecting the streetcar and trolley lines is a long-range goal which “could happen in another generation.”

Smith said having the two lines connect would have cost so much money they wouldn't have qualified for the funds they're seeking. Keeping the two trolleys separate means they each have a better crack at getting funded.

Mark Phillips, a long range planner for Metro, said the agency is working on one of the first implementation projects for Moving Transit Forward, Metro’s 30-year plan for expanding and improving the system.

Metro will present two options for bus rapid transit (BRT) at public meetings in late August or early September, he said. Routes being considered for BRT or other enhanced service would follow Interstate 64, Interstate 70, Interstate 55, Interstate 44 or Grand Boulevard in the city.

Any BRT project along I-70 would have to include St. Charles but only if the residents there are willing to pay for it, Phillips said.

While the BRT service will have attractive stations, benches and shelters and provide real-time information to riders, people just want to get where they want to go quickly, he said.

“What people want to see most is ease of use, speed of travel and high frequency, not relying on schedules but being able to know the bus will there within 10 to 12 minutes at the most, maybe 15. The key is reliability, frequency and limited stops.”

Rather than spurring development, BRT will focus on getting people to jobs, Phillips said. St. Louis currently suffers a disconnect between housing and jobs with housing spreading north-south while jobs are expanding to the west, he said. Transit-dependent riders can spend an hour and a half one way to get to their jobs, he added.

Metro’s goal with BRT is to shorten that time as well as to attract “choice riders,” those who are now driving to work, Phillips said.

CMT and Metro will hold a public meeting at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at Cortex Forest Park to announce possible locations for the Cortex MetroLink station and parking garage.

The proposed downtown line runs north-south from Florissant and St. Louis avenues to the Civic Center Metrolink station. The east-west alignment has a downtown loop. At the west, it makes a loop from Lindell to Forest Park and connects to the CWE metro.
Credit Brent Jones | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
The proposed downtown line runs north-south from Florissant and St. Louis avenues to the Civic Center Metrolink station. The east-west alignment has a downtown loop. At the west, it makes a loop from Lindell to Forest Park Avenue, and connects more directly to the Central West End Metrolink station.