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Clang, clang, clang goes the Downtown Circulator -- oops -- trolley

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1, 2010 - Metro today unveiled its "Downtown Trolley," an expanded version of its "Downtown Circulator No. 99" bus, which has been in operation the last several months.

But if the word "trolley" conjures up images of the streetcar Judy Garland rode in "Meet Me In St. Louis," forget about it. This "trolley" is a dressed up MetroBus.

The bus has been "wrapped" to look somewhat like a trolley of old.

Metro officials plus those from the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis and the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission are hoping the buses with the vintage look will jump start ridership downtown.

Metro, the CVC and the Downtown St. Louis Community Improvement paid $40,000 for the design and implementation of the project.

"They paid for the design; we paid to wrap the vehicles," Dianne Williams, Metro director of communications, said in an interview. TOKY Branding and Design of St. Louis did the art on the buses. Lamar Advertising of St. Louis did the wrap.

Metro paid about $5,000 to wrap each of five buses, she added. The agency expects to have another one wrapped "just to give us a little flexibility in case a bus breaks down," Williams said.

When Metro slashed service in 2009 because of a budget crisis, it ended bus service at 14th Street eliminating 11 buses lines going into downtown.

"That was a lot of buses kind of tripping over each other, and it added to downtown congestion," Williams said.

Riders wanting to go further into downtown had no option but to transfer to MetroLink. When the agency restored some service with a one-time infusion of funds from the state legislature a few months later, it created the Downtown Circulator as an option for riders to get to other points downtown.

"The change meant riders coming into downtown from other locations could transfer to the Circulator to go deeper into downtown," Williams said. "It means a transfer for everybody going into downtown who doesn't want to do it on MetroLink."

Eliminating buses from downtown streets saved Metro money and eased traffic congestion, but it also cost the agency riders.

"We lost a lot of people because (they would say), 'I'm coming from South County and I need to get here (a point in downtown) and you don't go there anymore,'" Williams said. "So now we're really hoping that those folks who thought they couldn't use us anymore from the far reaches of our community know that they can and that they will come back."

The Downtown Trolley line expands the service provided by the Circulator one block and pulls in City Museum, she said. It will cost Metro about the same to operate the trolleys as it did the Downtown Circulator -- about $1.1 million per year.

"It's a whole lot less money then we had been paying before the service cuts because it's taking the place of all of those routes that used to come into downtown and serving it with one route," Williams added.

The goal of the partnership in funding the creation of the trolleys is both to "increase ridership and to get more feet on the street in downtown," Maggie Campbell, president and CEO of the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, said.

"Decades ago trolleys went around the streets of this community, and people took them," Kitty Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis CVC, said at the launch of the service this morning. "That's how they got around and navigated St. Louis."

The buses that replace trolleys are often confusing to visitors unfamiliar with the city. Because visitors may not know where the buses go, they act as barriers, she said.

"We've go a product here that we think works for everyone -- residents, workers and visitors," she said of the trolleys. "It's something that's fun and friendly -- it is not a barrier."

Signs at the trolley stops will make it easy for visitors to see where the bus will take them, she said. 

Ratcliffe commended Metro for being receptive to the "trolley" idea.

"It would be really easy for Metro to say, 'We operate buses,'" she said. "That's not what they said. They said, 'We're in the transportation business.' There's a big difference."

The new No. 99 bus will make access to downtown attractions and businesses more convenient, Williams said. Beginning today, the No. 99 Downtown Trolley loops through downtown from the Civic Center MetroLink station traveling on 14th, Spruce, Market and 4th streets, Broadway and Washington Avenue to the City Museum before returning on 14th Street to the Civic Center.

She compared the trolley route to the Forest Park Shuttle that runs through the park during the summer.

"Downtown service is back, it's strong, it's frequent and it's ready to take you around downtown," Williams said at the launch of the service this morning.

Williams said the trolley aims to increase "two sources of ridership" -- people who work downtown and visitors from out of town.

The trolley operates from 5:30 a.m. to midnight, Mon.-Fri., and 7 a.m. to midnight, Sat. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the trolley will run every 10 minutes and every 20 minutes at other times.

The $2 fare for adults and $1 for children, seniors and the handicapped buy an all-day pass allowing customers to get on and off throughout the day at any of the trolley stops. Metro passes and transfers are also good on the trolley. Tickets can be purchased on the trolleys or at the MetroRide Center in America's Center at 7th Street and Washington Avenue.

The $2 fare for the trolley line is a "trial" with officials reviewing it down the road "to see if it makes sense," said Williams. She noted that no mass transit system in the country covers its costs by fares alone. 

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently on transportation.

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