The head of the agency that runs the region’s transit network characterized the Loop Trolley as a “troubled project” Tuesday but still said his organization should attempt to turn it around.
The future of St. Louis transit might be threatened if the trolley — which ran out of money and closed in December — is allowed to go dormant permanently, said Taulby Roach, CEO of the Bi-State Development Agency.
The federal government may not be interested in giving the area money for transit projects in the future if the trolley, which was built with federal funds, goes out of business for good, Roach said. The Federal Transit Administration’s regional leaders have expressed concern about the project already, he said.
“We all find ourselves in the unenviable position of identifying a way to reassure the federal government that the St. Louis region can be trusted with federal investments by making the best out of a bad situation,” Roach wrote in a letter to the St. Louis County Council on Tuesday.
Roach appeared before the council later Tuesday to talk about plans to put the trolley on a four-year rehabilitation plan. Using about $1.9 million in leftover federal funding, Bi-State would attempt to streamline its operations, beef up service and provide incentives to attract more riders. Upgrades would be made to its equipment, which has broken down frequently.
Roach said the $1.9 million is essentially left over from previous Bi-State projects that came in under budget. The federal government had to give special permission for the money to be repurposed for the trolley, Roach said. He declined to say what projects the money was left over from, or how it might have been used if not for the trolley project.
The trolley would operate with a deficit of $240,000 in its first budget cycle — covered by federal funds — but Roach would strive to make it self-sufficient in 2024. Bi-State expects the transportation tax district that currently supports the trolley to bring in more revenue over the next few years, which would be used to support the bulk of the operations. The goal is to have it running 60 hours per week.
“We are trying to do our best with a difficult situation,” he said. “There are some aspects that are not fixable, not perfect.”
Roach intends to ask the Bi-State Board of Commissioners on Friday to take over the day-to-day operations of the trolley. The new trolley arrangement also would need the approval of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, though no meeting for that vote has been set yet.
If all goes smoothly, the trolley could be running again by spring, Roach said.
But the plan received a chilly reception from the county council at a committee meeting Tuesday afternoon. Democrats, who make up the majority of the council, declined to comment on the trolley strategy. The Republicans made clear that they didn’t approve of it.
The GOP county council members questioned whether walking away from the trolley would really hurt St. Louis’ chance at future federal funding. They also cast doubt on whether Roach could make the trolley viable by 2024.
“We will have the problem we do now if we can’t make it work in four years,” said Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-South County.
Roach has already made concessions to St. Louis County, which provides the lion’s share of Bi-State’s funding.
Under his plan, Bi-State will be managing day-to-day operations of the trolley, but the trolley’s tax district would continue to own the system and its assets. This means Bi-State wouldn’t be held responsible for any federal funding that has to be returned should the trolley fail.
Roach also wants to avoid using local tax dollars. He said no “new funding” from local governments would be used to support the trolley moving forward.
Though Roach is pushing for the revival of the trolley, he indirectly criticized the project in his letter and remarks to the county council several times.
“Please do not misconstrue my work toward finding a potential solution to those challenges as meaning that I necessarily think the Loop Trolley was the best way federal transportation dollars could ever have been spent,” he wrote.
“Whether the trolley should have been built is a question that was answered by a previous generation of leaders,” Roach wrote.
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