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Economy & Business

A streetcar named possibility? Downtown Partnership promotes trolley as spark to development

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: On Wednesday, along Edgewood Street in downtown Atlanta, 80-foot-sections of steel rail were lowered into trenches in the street. It was the first section of rail for Atlanta Streetcar, following a process that took 10 years and millions of dollars.

The first rails went into the historic Martin Luther King district of Atlanta and, once complete, will feature an east-west line with 2.6 miles of rail.

That same day in Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Wash., and Tampa, Fla., streetcars moved people to work, out to eat, to shop and then home again.

In St. Louis, traffic and people move along the streets of downtown as usual. No major construction for a streetcar system, no dug up roads or 80-foot steel rails. No bustling streetcar networks. At least not yet.

But the wheels are in motion, so to speak, for just such a possibility.

On Thursday afternoon, the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis presented the draft of its feasibility study to a public open house. The proposed streetcar lines would link downtown to the north side, the Central West End and midtown. The total capital cost for construction, according to the draft study, is between $218 and $271 million. According to the feasibility report, about half that money would come from federal financial support, with a local match from a proposed transportation development district. And, the study reports, expected economic impact during the first five years is $540 million.  

Everything old is new again

Streetcars are something of a phenomenon right now, says Cathy Yang Liu, an assistant professor at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. There’s a nostalgia for them and a historical connection that many cities, such as Atlanta and St. Louis, have with streetcar lines.

“It’s almost like revisiting an old concept with new technology,” she says.

And their popularity comes along with a trend over the last three to five years, she says, of people returning to cities. 

Many projects, like the ones in Atlanta and St. Louis, start out at a nonprofit level and grow into a partnership between the civic world and the investment world. And advocates say they can spur growth.

In St. Louis, plans for the current line were initiated by the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, but there’s also strong support in several pockets around St. Louis for the venture, says Jerry Blair, director of transportation with East-West Gateway Council of Governments. Blair, who is on the project’s steering committee, says just look at the steering committee to see the kind of political will and support that exists for a streetcar. Members include people from the mayor’s office, Metro, Washington University’s School of Medicine, Grand Center, HOK and St. Louis Development Corporation.

“It looks like there’s some pretty enthusiastic support out there,” Blair says.   

According to a 2012 fact sheet from Central Atlanta Progress, Inc., and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, streetcar lines have spurred growth in their path in other cities, including 140 real estate projects in Portland, Ore., and 3.3 million square feet of development in Seattle. 

In St. Louis, the proposed streetcar lines are estimated to spark $540 million in development over the first five years, with $2.1 billion over 20 years.

When MetroLink was being built, there were also optimistic predictions of development. But Blair says the comparison between MetroLink and a streetcar is not exactly apt.

Construction of MetroLink did spur some new growth among places where growth was already occurring, Blair says, though not a lot of new growth, at least yet. But a streetcar line connecting downtown to Grand to the Central West End is at street level, with a much greater potential to spur growth and development than MetroLink has. 

Patti Beck, interim communications director at Metro, says that "Metro is one of several community partners providing technical guidance for the St. Louis streetcar study.  The study is a not a Metro project."

Beck also notes that the streetcar is "a very different product" than MetroLink. "Travel time on the streetcar would be much slower than MetroLink and would probably not attract riders currently taking MetroLink from the Central West End to downtown," she said.

The idea of streetcar lines in downtown St. Louis has been batted around for years, but this latest feasibility study took place over the past nine months, says Craig Heller, managing partner of Loftworks, LLC and a board member of the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis.  

And, unlike in Atlanta, where the line is a little over two miles, the proposed lines in St. Louis would run longer, connecting east and west, as well as north and south. It’s not just a tourist line, says Heller.

“This is serious transit,” he says. “This is about really moving people.”

The study estimates weekday ridership at 7,700, and Heller says those numbers come from looking at neighborhood demographics. The new lines would connect people to the MetroLink, as well, and in determining ridership, Heller says they used standards set out by the federal government. 

“It connects the region,” he says. “It connects people to jobs, it gives people transit options. St. Louis needs to look at what is our future.”

And in that future, he says, how does St. Louis compete with other cities, attract jobs and young people?

“It’s more than just a streetcar line,” he says. “We need to make these types of investments.”

The study reports that the streetcar line would add 2,700 riders and increase MetroLink ridership as well, and that’s feasible, Heller says, when you look at a younger generation returning to cities who are not as tied to their cars as their parents might be.

The proposed downtown line has a north-south alignment from Florissant and St. Louis connecting to the Civic Center Metrolink station. The east-west alignment has a downtown loop. The western end has two options, one which makes a loop from Lindell to Forest Park Avenue and another that connects more directly to the Central West End Metrolink station.

Tourist trolley vs. transit trolley

If built, the line wouldn’t be the first new streetcar in St. Louis. Right now, plans are in place for a 2.2 mile line with the Loop Trolley, which would carry people from the Loop to the Missouri History Museum, with a number of stops in Forest Park along the way.

“I’m hoping we’ll be positioned to start construction this summer, and have it up and running next summer,” says Joe Edwards, owner of Blueberry Hill and a non-voting member of the Loop Trolley board of directors.

Edwards has had talks with some people involved with plans for the downtown trolley over the years, and he isn’t sure why there’s no plan to connect the two lines, but he hopes at the Loop’s lines expand, there will be that possibility.

The lines are, however, different in a few ways. The Loop’s line is roughly two miles, which many others around the country are, and it covers well-trod ground frequented by residents and tourists.

Streetcar lines are most successful when they’re in areas with high tourist traffic, says Ray Mundy, a professor for transportation studies and director for the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. With the assets the Loop Trolley’s route already has, like heavy foot traffic and sites popular with locals and tourists, he thinks it will be a successful line. 

But would a trolley work downtown, where, he says, after 5 or 6 at night, things get pretty quiet?

“Hope springs eternal,” Mundy says. 

Many cities are hoping a streetcar system will help bring people back into the city the way they once did, but the structure of those cities and where business are have changed.

Streetcar lines could be a first step toward bringing more things downtown, including tourists, business and foot traffic, says Liu.

"I don't know that it will be as good as it was 100 years ago," she says. "It's just not the same thing."

Mundy agrees.

“I would not look at the light rail system as a silver bullet to completely change the investment patterns and life in the area of downtown St. Louis.”

Show me the money

How will the system be funded? Will it take ridership away from other transit, like the MetroLink or the bus system? And ultimately, will people change their very ingrained driving behaviors to ride the streetcar system?

According to the feasibility study, the federal government would be a major funder of construction. And in the current political environment, it's hard to say how easy or hard it would be to obtain that money.

If constructed, the downtown lines would cost $9.7 million a year to operate. To maintain funding for the project, the study reports the need for a transportation development district, or TDD, which would generate a projected $10 million annually. The Loop Trolley has a TDD, Edwards says, where business owners along the route voted for a 1 cent sales tax. That’s predictable money, he says, and along with fare boxes and sponsorship and advertising, he thinks the Loop line is in good shape. 

Blair says just who would be running a streetcar line hasn’t been determined yet. It could end up being Metro, or it could go the direction of the Loop Trolley and be run by a TDD. 

“We really haven’t defined that yet,” he says. 

The new downtown system wouldn’t take away riders from other transit in the area, Heller says, but rather it would be complementary. The proposal wouldn’t get through the federal government, he says, if it took people away from existing services.

And no, streetcars in St. Louis aren’t a fix-all, Heller agrees. But it will connect places with both population and employment density, and help bring more density downtown. 

“This is not a silver bullet,” Heller says. 

But it is about taking steps toward building a better downtown, he says, and a better city. 

Next steps for the St. Louis Streetcar include being adopted into East-West Gateway Council of Government’s long-range transportation plan, which would allow the project to be eligible for federal funding. The draft study projects construction beginning in 2016. 

That time frame may be optimistic, Blair says. It’s taken the Loop Trolley about 10 years to get to where it is now and it took Atlanta that long, too. A lot of things will dictate the time frame, he says, from the time it takes to get federal funding for an environmental analysis, which would be a next step, to how long it would take competing for federal funding at the national level. 

“But you have to be optimistic,” Blair says, “until you have a reason not to be.”

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