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Feds to region: Get Loop Trolley running again or pay us back

Sunlight illuminates the Loop Trolley’s tracks on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, in St. Louis. The East-West Gateway Council of Governments rejected approval of $1.26 million in federal highway funds to help cover the street car’s operational costs on Wednesday, putting the future of the trolley in question.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Loop Trolley tracks, shown on Oct. 27. The trolley has not operated in nearly two years. Now, the Federal Transportation Administration says the region must get it running again by the summer or face paying back the money used in its construction.

The operator of the Loop Trolley is on the clock to get the 2.2-mile system running again by the summer, or risk having to pay back millions of federal dollars used in its construction.

In a letter sent to the board of the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District on Monday, the Federal Transportation Administration gave the district and the Loop Trolley Company until Feb. 1 to develop a plan for four-day-a-week operations starting June 1. If that February deadline is missed, the FTA is prepared to take steps to “recover federal funding awarded to the TDD for the Loop Trolley.”

Construction of the trolley required more than $37 million in federal funding, over half of the cost. As part of the grant agreements, the system was supposed to run five cars, seven days a week.

But the operator has never been able to live up to that agreement, running at most three cars, four days a week. And service on the system has been suspended for almost two years.

A proposal presented to the East-West Gateway Council of Governments in October would have used an additional $1.2 million in federal funds, plus about $540,000 raised by the tax within the development district, to run trolleys for free four hours a day, four days a week. That proposal, which also would have turned operation of the trolley over to the transit agency Metro, failed.

At an unrelated press conference on Monday, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, a member of East-West Gateway’s board, said the transportation administration’s letter proved that decision was shortsighted.

“It has put us at risk for this money to be clawed back, which is a black eye for all of us,” Page said. “If this money is clawed back, that will weigh against us with future requests for federal transportation money.”

Jim Wild, executive director of East-West Gateway, said that on paper, the transportation development district would be responsible for meeting the clawback provisions. But he said it was unclear whether the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County and University City could also be required to contribute.

A spokesman for St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, who chairs the trolley development district board, said she had also warned of the consequences of not restarting operations. She said she looked forward to working with other members of the board to meet the deadline outlined in the letter.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.