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Would Loop trolley spark development or remain a tourist gimmick?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 15, 2010 - Outside the Delmar Loop MetroLink stop, the view is lopsided. To the west are the Loop's restaurants, flashing lights, busy sidewalks and venues. But to the east it's dark, the sidewalks are deserted, and there is nothing to attract any visitors.

Since 1997, Joe Edwards has sought to change that with a trolley to entice developers and link the Loop with its eponymous MetroLink stop and Forest Park, while reducing traffic and providing a clean form of transportation. "It's beneficial in just about every way," Edwards said. "There are no negatives in this thing."

With preliminary design wrapping up and millions of federal stimulus dollars up for grabs, Edwards' dream has never been closer to becoming reality. But despite the project's big-name supporters -- University City Mayor Joe Adams, Alderwoman Lyda Krewson, Washington University and U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, among them -- questions remain on the minds of some developers and urban planning specialists here about whether the development benefits would outweigh the $50 million remaining cost.

With development around the Loop Metro stop lopsided to the west, trolley supporters want to create a balance and develop the area to the east. They feel that the 2.2-mile line -- which would start at the Lions Gate and travel down Delmar Boulevard before heading south on DeBaliviere Avenue to the Missouri History Museum -- would help do just that.

"It's much more than just transportation," said Krewson, D-28th Ward. "It's an entertainment attraction in and of itself that connects other high-destination areas."

The jury is still out among developers and urban planning specialists on whether spending $50 million for the trolley would definitely help with development.

"That's a legitimate question that remains unanswered," said Bob Lewis, president of St. Louis-based firm Development Strategies and a member of the board of Citizens for Modern Transit.

It's also not certain whether the group will get the stimulus money that it seeks. The group already has spent $1.5 million for preliminary design. The proposed design will likely include a roundabout at the western end -- which is at the Trinity Avenue-Delmar Boulevard intersection -- and electric-battery hybrid cars.

Edwards and Terry Freeland, manager for transportation corridor studies at East-West Gateway, have said that the $50 million for remaining design and construction would have to come mostly from federal grants, with the rest from a mish-mash of private and public sources. Trolley supporters are vying for $25 million in stimulus money from the Federal Transit Administration's Urban Circulator grants program (money for buses and streetcars), and $51 million in stimulus money from the U.S. Transportation Department's TIGER grants program (transportation projects that boost economic development).

But here's the problem: There is $1.5 billion in TIGER money for $56.5 billion in applications, which means long odds and high competition. TIGER grant selections should be out by Wednesday.

Freeland says it's unclear what the trolley supporters' prospects are for winning the grants, but "we remain hopeful."

He noted that since the group has preliminary design done, it may have a leg up on competition for the Urban Circulator grants, but the maximum award for that is $25 million, well short of the $50 million target.

Trolley supporters, including the Loop Trolley Co. and Citizens for Modern Transit have sent letters to FTA chief Peter Rogoff pressing their case for the Urban Circulator money. Trolley backers write that they would pursue philanthropic support as part of a local match if they receive federal funding, according to Tom Shrout, executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit.

If the group does get enough money, trolleys certainly wouldn't be new to St. Louis, which grew around them in the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s. In that regard, a trolley could fit in nicely on the Loop, said Andrew Faulkner, who has served as faculty assistant in urban design at Washington University.

"Basically every part of the city west of Grand was built with streetcar transportation in mind," Faulkner said. "It's an ideal mode of transportation for the existing urbanism of the city."

Trolley proponents have pointed to Portland, Ore., as a city with a new trolley that has fostered significant development along the trolley route. Portland real-estate developer John Carroll has spoken in St. Louis about a trolley's potential development benefits.

But urban-issues blogger Alex Ihnen argues that the analogy to Portland is false. "They connect it to their downtown, their major employment center," said Ihnen, who has praised and criticized various aspects of the proposed trolley on his blog, Saint Louis Urban Workshop. "In St. Louis, that parallel is not the Loop."

Downtown may not be the best area for a trolley, some development specialists say. They believe the Loop's linear shape, young population and dense entertainment options make it a prime location for a trolley.

"You've also got residential density existing and lot more potential within the [Loop] corridor, especially in DeBaliviere area," Lewis said. "Those are folks who can drop off their stuff and grab the trolley to see the movies or go to Blueberry Hill, whereas you don't have that scale of development in the downtown area."

Lewis said outsiders could also park their cars off the Loop and take the trolley there, and visitors without cars would also benefit.

With its ability to eliminate walking distances, the trolley could promote high-density residential and commercial development that areas on and east of the Loop could really use, Lewis added. Development specialists say a fixed-track trolley, the one that's being proposed, would do a better job of that than a trolley on wheels, even though the former costs a lot more. That's because building tracks into the road signals to developers that the route is there to stay, whereas bus routes are subject to change.

Cicero's Restaurant owner Shawn Jacobs, who sits on the Loop Association board, said the project is a "great idea," even though there may be some glitches along the way. "It's going to be a fun project, and when it gets finished up, I think it will be very successful," Jacobs said. "It should help all the businesses on the Loop."

Faulkner, who overall likes the trolley idea, said the proposed route might be too short to justify the cost and it would be better to connect the Loop to the Central West End and beyond instead of to the Missouri History Museum. He has proposed constructing the trolley line in stages; doubling the length would not double the cost, he said, because a large portion of the cost is fixed.

"If it's $50 million to put in essential infrastructure, and then you double the length of the line in the next 10 years, that's a fairly reasonable cost," Faulkner said.

Edwards, Adams and other supporters have said that trolleys could end up in the Central West End and even on Grand Boulevard in the long term. Whether the current proposed trolley would be extended or more lines would be built is still unclear, but Edwards said he sees this trolley as a prototype for future expansion. "They'd be a great way to connect this part of the city to the Central West End, to Grand," Edwards said. "These and other areas could benefit immensely."

Edwards also defends the having the route connect the Loop to Forest Park, noting that the route would also touch two MetroLink stops.

"It could mean the difference between getting a convention coming here or not," Edwards said.

If anything, the success of the trolley project would mark the return of the vehicle that helped shape St. Louis.

"Of course, adding a trolley back to St. Louis is not just nostalgia," Ihnen said. "It's a very appealing idea," one that could make one of America's best commercial streets even better.

Puneet Kollipara, a former intern at the Beacon, is a student at Washington University.

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