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Not everyone is ready to climb aboard Loop trolley project

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 12, 2010 - While area leaders applauded the announcement of almost $25 million in federal funding for construction of a Loop trolley line in St. Louis, public reaction to the plan is mixed.

Some residents hailed the proposed trolley line linking the Loop neighborhood with the History Museum in Forest Park as good for St. Louis, but others questioned the wisdom of spending dwindling federal dollars on a streetcar line in tight economic times.

"It's great," said Jason Grossmann, a Central West End resident. "It's good to connect different areas. MetroLink goes from one point to one point with no chance for getting off in between. This will open up (the route) and (riders) will be able see straight down the middle of the Loop instead of going around it."

Federal officials last week announced a $24.9 million grant to help fund construction of the 2.2-mile trolley line saying it would spur development along the route east of the Loop. Additional funding would come from private individuals and companies, said Joe Edwards (right), the driving force behind the trolley. Edwards, who owns Blueberry Hill restaurant and several other businesses in the Loop, has been pushing the idea of a trolley connecting the loop with the History Museum for about 14 years.

Anne Voss, a West End resident who said she's lived within two blocks of Delmar since 1930, agreed that the trolley is a good idea. "I've seen a lot of other streets go down, and I think this will help a great deal," she said. "Obviously, there are some design problems, but Joe's working on it. Many of our streets need help; they need something like this."

Voss said she enjoys seeing kids "walking along" on Delmar in the Loop adding that she feels comfortable letting her granddaughter walk in the area even at night.

"This is beautiful," she said. "It's one of the greatest streets in America."

"I think it will bring more tourism into the Loop," said Melissa Wheeler, a recent Washington University graduate who said she's lived near the Loop for the past year and a half. "I think it's bringing back the 'old school Loop.' I think that's what Joe's been doing; he's been slowly renovating this place and making it into a brand new Loop. It's a cool idea."

Nikki Davis, who lives in the Central West End, said she had not heard about the trolley line but she said she would probably ride it with her young son.

"I think it's wonderful," Kirkwood resident Anita Joggerst said. "Anything like that where you don't have to drive to me is just advantageous to the city.

"And you know, people complain about St. Louis, and that's one of the reasons: Our transportation system could be better. So when you have something like a trolley where people don't have to drive, where they can maybe just park their car and hop on, it's an advantage."

Bel-Nor resident Dennis Meier, relaxing at the St. Louis Bread Company in the Loop on Friday while area leaders celebrated the funding announcement on a street corner nearby, called the trolley "a wonderful thing." However, it wouldn't get built without the federal dollars, he added.

"Joe Edwards is a catalyst. When I was a kid, the Loop was a pit and now it's wonderful to see it blossoming the way it has," he said. "And I think Joe (Edwards) has had wonderful ideas for its redevelopment. As far as I'm concerned, if he thinks the trolley is a good idea, I think he deserves to have a go at it."

Meier says he comes to the Loop often to shop and go to the restaurants and envisions using the trolley after it is built. "I do a lot of exercising in Forest Park so it would be great to come here, have my bagel, take the trolley to Forest Park, do my running and come back."

But others are less enthusiastic; they say a trolley line is redundant because the History Museum and the Loop each have MetroLink stops and the Loop is served by existing bus routes.

Jim Hahn of Town and Country said he questions the "merits" of the trolley.

"I'm sure it will be a boon to tourism and great for the loop businesses, but I have to wonder whether it's appropriate, considering the source of the funds," he said.

"I believe that some of the money is coming from private sources, and if all of it did, that would be great. However, I understand that a lot of it is government -- read 'borrowed' -- money, and I don't believe it is appropriate to run up the national debt to fund this purely local project."

Cheryl Hammond, a city resident who said she rides Metro, questioned how the group will raise the $45 million to $50 million needed to build the line.

Hammond also noted that the state Legislature gave Metro a one-time infusion of $12 million last year when Metro had a major shortfall causing it to drastically cut service. "$25 million is a lot of money, and it would have gone a long way to helping Metro service," she said.

She also wondered how the trolley would cover operating costs. "Metro wouldn't be in bad shape at all if it didn't have operating costs," she said. "We hear over and over again that fares don't bring in enough money to support transit so how are they going to keep the trolley going?

"They're saying the TDD (transportation tax district) is just for capital costs and certainly the $25 million is just for capital costs. Do they expect fares to cover the operating costs? I mean, what would they have to charge -- $10 a ride from the History Museum down to Blueberry Hill?"

(Edwards did in fact suggest that the fares might cover operating costs.)

She also questioned how long the transportation tax district would be in effect. Most have a "sunset" or ending date after the capital item it was created to fund is paid for, she said. "In this case, if it's going to be used for operating costs the TTD, the TDD will never go away," she said.

Hammond also pointed out that the trolley has "no integration" with Metro. "They keep talking about how it's going to be so great that you get off Metro at the History Museum and you ride down to the Loop on this new trolley. OK, so you pay so much for your MetroLink ticket and then you have to buy a brand new ticket -- instead of having just a transfer?

"I don't want to be too negative about the trolley, but I just can't see that it makes a lot of sense. It seems in point to be only a reflection of those who want it," said Bill Friedewald who is moving from Webster Groves to south St. Louis. "I could care less."

Friedewald said he doesn't go to the Loop often but noted that the last time he saw a movie at the Tivoli, parking was not an issue. "They have plenty of free parking close to the theater," he said. "No need for a trolley. What is the point other than to gain an asset by grant funding?"

James Amos of St. Louis, a student at Covenant Seminary, agrees. "I'm not necessarily convinced that's a good use of federal dollars, but I do think a trolley will be a good thing for this neighborhood," he said. "I'll probably use it. I think it'll be a fun thing. But $25 million is a lot of money."

Amos said he would rather projects benefitting local business be paid for with a local tax that residents could vote on.

John Cline, also a St. Louis resident and student at Covenant Seminary, called the trolley line "somewhat extravagant" and said he does not think he'll use it.

"It would make more sense to go farther into Forest Park," he said. "It takes so long to walk anywhere in the park. It seems a little odd. There are other places worth investing in before investing more in the Loop. On its own, it's doing pretty well. I don't know how many people are coming here and looking to go to the History Museum afterward."

Rick Rosen, a former urban planner who describes himself as an "activist" in urban development issues, has mixed feelings. He applauds Edwards' years of work to bring a trolley line to the Loop, but he says it makes more sense to have a trolley connecting downtown with Grand Center and the Central West End.

"What the region really needs is a wonderful transit system for Forest Park itself to get people to the attractions there," said Rosen.

Currently Metro runs the Forest Park Shuttle that stops at several points in the park, but it's a summer-only service. Rosen argues a year-round service is needed and that a bus is a bad choice for the park.

"A bus is never a wonderful transit system," he said. "A bus is always deficient. Buses suck."

Buses are unappealing because of "how the human mind works," he said. "If there's a flexible route for some kind of public transportation vehicle and that route is changing from year to year, nobody will use it."

But with a fixed system, the route is "imprinted on people's minds," he said. "A firm map grows inside a human being's mind when there's a rail transit route. There's this fact that it will be there. The deeper the imprint on the brain, the more we use that route and the more central it becomes to our day-to-day life. A bus is never going to attract the ridership of a fixed route."

And while he doesn't favor at-grade systems because they are slow, trolleys do have appeal, he said.

"People love to ride trolleys especially when those trolley take them to wonderful places they love to go, especially when those places were built because of trolleys. There's just a natural resonance about a trolley to the Loop. People will love it.

"Here's the thing. If we had to choose between that trolley and another extension of MetroLink I would say, 'no' to the trolley but that's not the way the funding is working. Because of that, I say it's not the best trolley for the region -- not for that first phase -- but it's the one we got because of Joe's good leadership. A different route would have been better, but we didn't have the leadership to do that different route. Joe provided the leadership to do this one and this is definitely a route people will love."

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

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