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Loop trolley project will revitalize the area, say supporters

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 9, 2010 - Development potential, not the streetcar itself, sold the federal government on funding a trolley line to link the Loop with Forest Park, U.S. Department of Transportation Undersecretary Roy Kienitz said this morning at a ceremony where he officially awarded $24.9 million to the nonprofit Loop Trolley Co.

"It's about businesses, it's about entertainment, it's about housing, it's about creating jobs, it's about economic value, it's about connecting universities with residential," he said. "There are bike networks going in. The street's going to be redesigned. They've thought of everything."

The event took place on a street corner outside of the popular Blueberry Hill restaurant amid cheers for businessman Joe Edwards and cookies shaped like little trolleys. Edwards owns Blueberry Hill and several other businesses in the Loop and has pushed for the Loop Trolley for more than a decade.

The federal funds were awarded under President Barack Obama's Livability Initiative. The initiative focuses on tying transportation to "good jobs, affordable housing, quality schools and safe streets," according to a Department of Transportation website

Funding from private donors and a 1 percent transportation development district (TDD) sales tax will supplement the federal funds for the project. Edwards said he hopes to get the trolleys up and running in the summer of 2011.

U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, and Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, made the official announcement of the award on Thursday.

Kienitz said one reason the St. Louis project won federal funding is that it fits the "new thinking" in the Transportation Department. "You don't start with the idea of what your technology is, you start with the place and what does the place need," he said. "When you try to do just one tiny little narrow thing, that actually doesn't get you what you're looking for. You've got to think big, and try to do all the things. That's something we were really attracted to--the development potential and everything that's going to go on around this streetcar."

That development potential is one reason he came to St. Louis for the ceremony, Kienitz said. The others are because "it's a really good street car project" and the community's commitment to the project, he said.

"These dollars are scarce," he said noting that the Department of Transportation awarded funding for only six major projects yesterday. Projects that win approval must have the community behind them to make them happen, he said. "It wasn't a question of whether this was going to happen. ... The only question was when because the commitment here locally was absolute."

The federal government takes a risk in funding a project, Kienitz. "We don't know how this is going to go. When we know that the people here are not going to let it fail, that gives us the confidence to come in and invest our money."

Kienitz joked that award is just short of $25 million because "it turns out if you get to ($25 million), there's all this paperwork."

The trolley as an economic engine

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said he would have bet against St. Louis getting the federal funding for the Loop Trolley, but it's a bet he would have gladly lost.

"This is really exciting for our region," he said. "$25 million. It is a good day."

Clay said he remembers traveling along Delmar in a streetcar to school with his sisters when he was growing up. "Just imagine, we can relive that now."

The new trolley will serve as a daily reminder that "people, money, jobs and opportunity flow freely across city and county borders," Clay added. "It will help us erase some of the artificial divisions in this community, and that's a big idea I'm really proud to support."

Carnahan agreed that the trolley will help revitalize the community and connect the city and the county. The project and other investments made possible by the economic recovery act will "help continue to grow this economy out of a deep recession."

Carnahan commended Edwards for his vision. The project will create an estimated 350 "direct construction jobs." The multiplier effect will make the trolley line "an economic engine," he added.

Building the trolley system

One argument against the trolley has been it would make traffic in the congested Loop even worse. Edwards disputes that, saying the trolley could "actually ease" congestion. Currently people drive "around and around and around" until they find a parking space, he said.

"This way they can park anywhere along the route and get on the trolley to go to their destination -- or more importantly, they could take MetroLink, get off at the Delmar Station or the Forest Park Station and never worry about parking at all."

The trolley will travel on two parallel sets of tracks -- one in each direction -- sharing the traffic lane with other vehicles east from the University City Hall to about the Wabash Station, Edwards said. Then the tracks would merge into a single, dedicated lane until it reaches the History Museum in Forest Park where it will circle the museum and end up again on DeBaliviere to head back to the Loop, he added.

Initial studies show that the parking lanes in the Loop would remain, Edwards said adding: "With (construction of) a small ramp for accessibility, it's conceivable that every block or two you'd lose one parking space."

Construction of the tracks, while major, is relatively simple compared to highway construction or constructing tracks for light rail and could be completed in about six months, he said.

When the St. Vincent Greenway, slated to go down DeBaliviere, is completed, the street would be "one of those rare streets in America that will have just about every form of transportation -- bike paths, a pedestrian path, trolley tracks, automobiles and bus service, all on the same street," Edwards said. "It's pretty amazing."

CH2M Hill, the Loop Trolley Co.'s consultant, did a "deep" analysis of the route, Edwards said.

"I don't think there'll be any hidden surprises with this project," he added. "They went down in manholes on DeBaliviere to see how big the sewers really are."

The company's board decided to go with a hybrid car rather than a restored trolley or a "regular" new one, he said. "The hybrid with the battery made the most sense for this route." The trolley would require overhead wires for part of the route, but not on the battery-powered section, he said.

Yet to be decided is the exact design and colors of the trolleys but "they will be built with the same lines as the old ones because they're so gorgeous."

Edwards envisions the five trolleys that will be on the streets simultaneously and the two spares will have different color schemes. "That's my personal preference, but it might not be that way," he said, adding that the company's board will have the final say.

The fare has not yet been set but Edwards says he'd like it to be similar to Metro fares which are currently $2.25 for MetroBus, $2.75 for MetroBus with a multi-use transfer and $2.25 for MetroLink.

While fares along do not cover operation costs on any mass transit system in the country, the original study for the Loop trolley showed that even operating only on the weekends, the trolley might break even and "possibly even make a dollar," Edwards said.

That's with the help of the Loop's transportation development district (TDD) with its 1 percent tax on sales. Currently the tax generates between $400,000 and $500,000 a year but with transit-oriented development along the route in the future, that number could double or triple, he said.

Building communities

For Edwards, though, the trolley has been more than just an economic engine or a transportation system. He has long seen it as a way to build communities and connections.

The trolley will attract "a new generation" of riders, Edwards said. "A lot of young professionals and creative people are really environmentally conscious" and would like the opportunity to live in an area where they don't need a second car or even a first car, he said.

The trolley will allow local residents to connect with MetroLink, Forest Park and its cultural institutions. "People can hop on a trolley and get an ice cream cone with their grandchildren or go into Forest Park to see an exhibit at the History Museum," Edwards said.

Edwards says he has seen how a trolley has stabilized neighborhoods in other cities. He pointed to Memphis, which he said had a neighborhood similar to the Loop with "a whole commercial strip that was totally vacant." After a fixed-track trolley was added, the neighborhood experienced a rebirth.

"Within a year all the storefront were thriving filled with cafes and galleries and retail shops -- a lot of individually owned and operated stores," he said. "It happened almost overnight. It was just remarkable."

The project was such a success another line was added soon afterward, he said.

At bottom, a trolley system is appealing to a lot of people, Edwards said. "It's just fun to ride."

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered transportation. 

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