A Grand Investment: Here Comes The Loop Trolley

Construction of the Loop Trolley is about to begin. You’ve heard that before. This time, though, local media seems to be convinced that the long-delayed project is ready to go. Recent news articles state that work would begin in March.

As a long-time supporter of the project, I feel the need to speak up now, because the trolley seems to be as unpopular as Obamacare. That may be only because its supporters, satisfied the project is a go, aren’t saying much, while defeated opponents are complaining loudly.

The complaints are familiar by now. The trolley is too expensive. It will clog traffic. People won’t use it because the cars run too infrequently, the tickets are too expensive and it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s doomed to disaster.

The mood along the trolley route will only grow more sour over the next few months. Construction is bound to bring inconvenience and ugliness. So this is the time to say that I am optimistic.

Joe Edwards, the trolley’s indefatigable champion, has made the case for it in many ways. Here’s the one that convinced me: “People in other towns will say, ‘St. Louis has one of the biggest urban parks in the nation, full of top attractions. And it has one of the 10 best streets in America, lined with restaurants, shops and bars. And a TROLLEY connects them! Let’s go there on vacation.”
I would.

To some, this sounds like a frivolous reason for laying track. But tourists are frivolous. That’s the whole point of vacation. On top of the cost of getting somewhere, you’re paying $100 per night just for a place to sleep and eating all your meals in restaurants. What’s the justification for this big investment? Fun, period. So vacationers want to pack every minute with fun.

Trolleys are fun. I’ve been lucky enough to vacation in cities that have them like Vienna, Berlin and Memphis, Tenn. Riding them is a kick. Visitors to Forest Park, of whom there are 13 million annually, will see the trolley setting off for the Loop and hop on.

I view the trolley as a way to bring people from Forest Park to University City, where they’ll spend lots of money and pay lots of sales tax. Though I for one am looking forward to riding it, it’s not primarily for us residents. The complaints that it’s not an efficient way to commute are beside the point.

As is the complaint that it will cause traffic congestion. Visitors come to the Loop to walk, not drive. And they come because it’s one of the few streets in the area that has an urban vibe – meaning it’s congested.

Many St. Louisans refuse to believe that people would come here on vacation, trolley or not. We’re not Chicago or New Orleans.

Granted, we can’t compete with those two, but we can more than hold our own against any other city in the region. Once I went to a talk by a park ranger at the Arch. After asking where everyone was from – out of state, except for me – he said he was willing to bet people were pleasantly surprised by St. Louis: It’s not a big city, but it has attractions equal to Philadelphia’s or Boston’s. I looked around: People were smiling and nodding.

Even if we can compete, some people seem to feel chasing tourist dollars is a silly, even shameful business. It’s what a city does when its glory days are behind it. These folks hate the trolley for being whimsical and nostalgic. Public transit should be for getting workers from home to job. Even – or especially – if the trolley was full of happy tourists waving Visa cards, they would still resent it getting in the way of their cars.

All I can say is we are no longer first in booze, first in shoes. Those manufacturing jobs are gone. We have to work with what we’ve got.

Could the trolley fail? Of course. We’re taking a chance, but we must. We don’t have a secure future as a bedroom suburb. U. City’s population is in gradual, but steady decline. And as our city manager, Lehman Walker, likes to intone ominously at public meetings, revenues are flat.

We could take more cautious measures. But other ideas for squeezing more money out of the Loop have drawn opposition, too. Charging for parking could drive the customers elsewhere. Inviting in more chain stores and restaurants would bring more stability because chains have deep pockets, but without individual entrepreneurs the Loop would lose its specialness. Demolishing our old public buildings and replacing them with condos would bring in more real estate tax, but those buildings are irreplaceable.

All these options strike me as little plans, and as Daniel Burnham said, “Make no little plans.” Burnham belonged to the confident generation that believed grand investments in a city would pay off – as did U. City’s founder, E.G. Lewis. Joe Edwards has the style of that exuberant era. So let’s be optimistic as the man builds his trolley. He’s been right before.

West End Word © March 2015

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