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Economy & Business

Revival of Loop trolleys would spur local development and economy, backers say

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 9, 2009 - Supporters of a project to restore some of St. Louis' storied trolleys to the Delmar Loop area told the public Wednesday that the project had the power to boost the local economy and spur development.

Backers are proposing a fixed-track trolley system that would run down Delmar, starting at Trinity Avenue, and turn south on DeBaliviere Avenue to the Missouri History Museum. At a public forum Wednesday at the Regional Arts Commission, backers said the system would also boost tourism and provide a clean, sustainable form of transportation there. About 100 people attended the forum.

The trains would be electric-battery hybrids. They would run every 10 minutes from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. No mention was made about fares.

The Loop Trolley Co., led by Loop impressario Joe Edwards, held the forum to get public input on trolley routes. The company's advisory board will make a final recommendation to East-West Gateway Council of Governments at the end of the month. If East-West Gateway approves, the company can start preliminary engineering, which the company wants finished by December.

Despite concerns about funding, Edwards said he was confident the project had finally picked up enough steam. It's not just a local phenomenon; he said cities like Tampa, Fla., Memphis and New Orleans have experienced resurgent development along their new streetcar lines.

"I think the whole country is tilting toward a much more sensible, clean, environmentally sound transportation whenever possible, and it is possible in high-density cities," Edwards said.

St. Louis has a long history with trolleys, especially on the Loop, which gets its name because trolleys used to run there long ago. "Meet Me in St. Louis" features them prominently in one well-known number, "The Trolley Song."

Tom Shrout, executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit, said the city developed in the early 20th century around fixed-track streetcars, but many neighborhoods declined when they removed their tracks after World War II. "Many people realize now that having a fixed-guideway streetcar is important to dense, urban life. ... It's part of the urban fabric," Shrout said.

The system would cost $48 million to $57 million to build, depending on what lanes the trolleys use and the exact route. It would also cost about $4.1 million annually to operate.

Of course, the "$64,000 question," said Terry Freeland, manager of corridor studies for East-West Gateway, is funding. Money would likely come from "a whole mish-mash" of sources, from the local to the federal level and private investment, he said in a presentation to the public.

The city, Freeland said, has asked U.S. Reps. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, and William Lacy Clay Jr., D-St. Louis, about earmarking $40 million for the project in an upcoming transportation bill.

The project could also get as much as $400,000 a year from a 1-cent sales tax passed last November in the transportation development district that includes the Loop. University City Mayor Joe Adams, who sits on the LTC advisory board, said his city has also set aside some money from an economic development sales tax.

Locals were concerned mostly about potential traffic problems from trolleys stopping on the street.

"That's probably everyone's biggest concern," said Marc Hornkohl, a resident of Webster Groves. "But I'd love to see it go, I think it would help extend the Loop, help businesses out and get more tourism around here."

Proponents said the trolley would reduce congestion because it would let people travel the area without a car. They said the system would run with traffic and serve the Forest Park-DeBaliviere and Delmar MetroLink stations.

Edwards said some people want to build trolleys on wheels to save money. But he said a fixed-track trolley, though more expensive to build, brings more benefits, including a 70 percent greater ridership.

"People don't like to ride buses nearly as much as they'll ride trains, or, in this case, a really nice trolley," Edwards said.

And unlike buses, fixed-track trolley routes are permanent, a quality that Shrout said attracts developers.

"Developers see that streetcar out there, and they know that next week whoever is running it can't decide to move it two blocks over," Shrout said. "They know it's there, because the tracks are in the street."

Adams said this trolley project could kick-start other projects in the city. He said it "would be fabulous" to see trolleys go through Forest Park to serve its museums and down Grand Boulevard.

The idea for the project started in 1997 with Edwards, who owns Blueberry Hill, the Pageant, Pin-up Bowl and other Loop businesses.

After a study by Metro in 2000 found that a trolley system would be feasible and spur development in the vicinity,  Citizens for Modern Transit took over the project and founded the Loop Trolley Co. The company got a grant to buy and refurbish two antique streetcars, which are on display in front of the Missouri History Museum and Commerce Bank.

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

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