Why the Loop Trolley Project is Smarter Than You Think

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IMAGE BY TONY SCHANUEL

The spiffy new Kansas City Streetcar opened recently—amid much civic pride and hoopla—with an initial week of 32,000 riders that “blew away” projections, according to media reports.

Well, that settles it. We can all get excited about the Loop Trolley now.

Just kidding. Saying you’re excited about the Loop Trolley is a good way to end the conversation at a cocktail party in this town. It’s right up there with “When you think about it, Stan Kroenke wasn’t such a bad guy.”

The level of skepticism about the trolley is really pervasive. I have no statistics to back this up, but it would appear that a large portion of the local population is convinced that the trolley will be nothing more than a white-elephant ride from the Delmar Loop to Forest Park and back. Maybe that will change by next spring, when the trolley is expected to open.

The negativity hasn’t translated into active opposition to the trolley, in no small part because of respect for its most visibly passionate civic backer, the man who saved the Loop, local icon Joe Edwards. But there is widespread doubt that the trolley will succeed. That’s too bad.

I think some perspective is in order here, and Kansas City is a good place to start. The similarities between the Kansas City Streetcar and the Loop Trolley are striking. Both projects are examples of a new class of transit known as urban circulators, designed to connect urban destinations and upgrade the quality of life therein. Both are 2.2 miles long. Both challenge and offend a strong automobile-centered local transportation culture. Both propose a solution for a problem that many people believe does not exist.

This is a controversial idea wherever it is proposed. In Kansas City, there was considerable opposition to the streetcar project, with foes arguing that it was unneeded, too costly, and unsustainable. They also protested that the construction headaches would disrupt—and even destroy—local businesses in the area to be served.

Sound familiar? It should, because foes in St. Louis have made the same arguments. They are hardly alone: Similar opposition has been raised in Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Charlotte, and perhaps all of the 40-or-so U.S. cities where such systems are planned, under construction, or in operation.

Urban circulators are a relatively new idea, and the jury is still out on whether they will succeed. The early returns suggest that the answer will be mixed: Some of the new streetcar systems have exceeded expectations, whereas others have fallen far below them. Kansas City’s system is off to a fine start, but it’s far too early to know how it will turn out.

Speaking of that, a couple of differences between the Kansas City and St. Louis projects suggest that we should have a much more positive attitude toward the trolley. One is the cost: Kansas City’s system reportedly came in at $102 million, or literally double the $51 million that the Loop Trolley—and related infrastructure improvements—are expected to cost for the same amount of track.

And even more important is the source of the funding. Somehow lost in the stories about delays is a critical point: Unlike in Kansas City, more than half the cost of St. Louis’ Loop Trolley will be borne by the federal government. Whereas Kansas City had to issue some $64 million in special obligations bonds for a project that the community seems mostly happy about, we in St. Louis won a serious competition to have our urban circulator seeded by money from Uncle Sam.

In 2010, St. Louis was one of just six cities—of a total of 65 that applied—to be awarded a $25 million Urban Circulator Grant by the Federal Transit Administration. The other cities receiving grants were Chicago, Dallas, Fort Worth, Cincinnati, and Charlotte.

This is not a small point. The 65 applicants sought more than $1 billion in funding, and there was only $130 million available for those particular FTA grants. This isn’t the sort of competition that St. Louis wins every day. (That $25 million was accompanied by a couple of smaller federal grants among a variety of funding sources, none of which included any new general taxation of the public.)

Understand that this FTA money was specifically earmarked for the sole purpose of funding urban circulator streetcar projects such as the Loop Trolley. That’s it. Nothing else. It wasn’t available for education or healthcare or sports stadiums or any other public purpose.

It also wasn’t available for any transportation purpose besides urban circulators. It wasn’t something that could have been spent on more security for MetroLink or more buses or anything else that the Bi-State Development Agency does.

If your view of the trolley is that it’s not justifiable to spend $25 million–plus in federal money to help redevelop some key urban neighborhoods, make them more walkable and accessible, and improve the environment, that’s fine. If you don’t think it’s important to connect Forest Park (and its tourists) to the Delmar Loop, fine. Reasonable people will differ about priorities.

But if St. Louis didn’t receive these federal dollars, not a penny of it would go toward any other purpose in St. Louis; it would go to some other city for an urban circulator streetcar just like the Loop Trolley. That’s the choice. Do you want to see some of our hard-earned federal dollars pumping jobs and economic development into St. Louis, or would you have felt better if they all went to Toledo?

With regard to the Loop Trolley’s long-term economic impact, I have no crystal ball. This isn’t a Chamber of Commerce report, so I won’t bore you with any spin or statistics about just how many jobs or billions in new development will be created as a result of the trolley.

As you might expect, I like the idea of the trolley. I think that the Delmar Loop is one of St. Louis’ treasures and that the trolley will add character and commerce to it. It will be a fun and efficient way to move up and down Delmar, and it might greatly enhance the area east to DeBaliviere and south to Forest Park. It can’t hurt tourism.

Full disclosure: I’m an owner of the The Wizard’s Wagon, a small game-and-hobby shop in the Loop, and we’re among the happy ones there. No doubt trolley construction has impeded our business at times, but we’ve grown like a weed during the past few years. Yes, we have to collect a 1-cent sales tax to support the Loop Trolley as part of a taxing district, but so be it.

The fact that sales tax revenues from the taxing district have continued to grow every year is a good counterargument to those who claim that Loop Trolley construction is killing business. And while it’s entirely possible that a small number of enterprises moved or closed because of the short-run loss of business from trolley construction, it’s highly unlikely that it’s the only factor. The media too often has given some departing business owner a free shot to blame the trolley and conveniently overlook any failures of their own.

One entrepreneur who hasn’t failed so much is Joe Edwards, someone with whom I’ve done business for nearly 40 years. The Loop Trolley has been his dream for almost two decades, and he’s the driving force publicly (along with longtime transit guru Les Sterman, among others). From Edwards’ founding of the legendary Blueberry Hill in 1972 to saving the Tivoli Theatre and creating such juggernauts as The Pageant and the Moonrise Hotel (among others), Edwards is the ultimate guardian of the Loop. I’m sure he’s had his setbacks, too, but I can’t imagine him blaming them on someone else.

Edwards is that man in the arena, to quote Teddy Roosevelt. He’s a doer, and the most idealistic businessman I’ve ever met. What a contrast to so many of those who most loudly criticize the Loop Trolley as a farce, while offering no dreams (or even ideas) of their own. It is, however, a free country.

Only time will tell whether the critics will be validated. My guess is that the trolley will do better than they think but not as well as Edwards and other backers would predict. Who knows?

I’d still rather see St. Louis fail swinging for the fences than “succeed” by maintaining the status quo. And let’s not sugarcoat the fact that ours is a struggling local economy. We might want to think twice about turning up our nose at an influx of tens of millions of federal dollars just because it might not represent the perfect priority. Especially when that influx represents virtually no hit on the taxpaying public at large.

This town has a great history—one that will be honored by the Loop Trolley’s vintage streetcars—and if it’s going to have a similarly great future, it has to give its best shot to ideas such as the Loop Trolley.

If Kansas City can feel good about its streetcar project—at double the cost, with not nearly as smart a funding structure—then I say we should stop seeing the Loop Trolley as a half-empty glass. Let’s get excited about it.

SLM co-owner Ray Hartmann is a panelist on KETC Channel 9’s Donnybrook, which airs Thursdays at 7 p.m. 

St. Louis Magazine © June 2016


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