This weekend, the Delmar Loop Trolley could make its last run.
The beleaguered trolley has run out of funding after struggling to grow ridership amidst inconsistent schedules and negative public perception.
But the Bi-State Development Agency is considering converting the trolley into part of the region’s public transit system. Under Bi-State ownership, the trolley would take Metro Transit tickets and run on a regular schedule.
“When people are buying tickets and trying to rely on getting to work or going to different destinations, they need to know that the trolley is going to be there on time and on a regular basis,” said Bi-State CEO Taulby Roach, who’s researching how the transit agency could operate the trolley.
Roach’s current proposal involves repurposing $1.1 million left over from federal trolley construction grants. That could cover the trolley’s budget deficit for four years and require no additional money from local governments, Roach said.
After that, the trolley would rely on ticket fare and a sales tax district for revenue — unless it received additional funding. The tax district currently generates more than $800,000 a year. Under Roach’s plan, increases in ridership and sales tax funding over four years would help the trolley break even.
In October, the Loop Trolley Co. requested $700,000 in aid from St. Louis County to keep the services running through next year.
St. Louis County Council Presiding Officer Ernie Trakas, R-south St. Louis County, called the trolley “an abysmal failure” and described its request as “a ploy to initiate what’s going to be pointed to as a perpetual subsidy of that trolley.”
The St. Louis County Council declined to grant the money.
Now, the chairman of the trolley ownership group, Joe Edwards, said it makes “perfect sense” for Bi-State to take over the trolley and keep it running.
“I think it’s wise and necessary to stop the operation right now to get ready to set everything in motion to have a grand reopening,” he said.
Edwards envisions a reopening that debuts regular service with a third trolley car. The delivery of that car has been delayed for more than a year, but it could arrive in January, he said.
Edwards is confident that if the trolley ran regularly, more people would use it.
“The trolley still hasn’t started, in my opinion,” he said. “There’s nothing but positive coming from this trolley project long-term.”
It’s a hard sell to many members of the public. The trolley sold just over 15,000 tickets in 11 months, according to the St. Louis Business Journal — vastly fewer than the 400,000 projected by a 2011 trolley assessment.
Some concerns are unlikely to change, even with a Bi-State takeover. Riding over the tracks can be dangerous for cyclists. The trolley loads on the sidewalk, instead of the center of Delmar, so it has clipped cars parked incorrectly. And the Loop already has four Metro stops nearby, so it adds transit services in an already transit-rich area.
Some transit riders have called for Bi-State to let the trolley default. They say they want the tracks to be ripped out or paved over, because they don’t want public transit to become responsible for bailing out the trolley.
But University City resident Sarah Heyman worries about the damage that could do to her neighborhood.
“I’m trying to keep an open mind about it, because it’s too expensive to tear it out,” she said.
Heyman lives near the west end of the trolley line and rides public transit regularly. To her, the trolley was a “fiasco from the get-go.” She watched in disappointment as construction plans changed and local businesses closed along the Loop.
If the trolley connected to the broader transit system and ran on a regular schedule, though, she has some hope that her neighborhood could take fewer losses. She might even ride it herself at night or during bad weather.
“It would be a bandage over a terrible wound. However, it’s the best possible outcome,” she said.
Roach said Bi-State would not want to use other public transit projects to subsidize the trolley.
“We want to be sure that we can manage this asset but not damage or lessen any of the other very valuable transit service that we put out every single day,” he said.
If the trolley project defaults, the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District and East West Gateway Metropolitan Planning Organization will have to repay some of its $34 million in grants, according to the Federal Transit Administration.
However, if the trolley resumed service under a different owner, the FTA said the grant would not need to be repaid.
Edwards said if Bi-State does not take the trolley over, he doesn’t know what his organization would do.
Roach said he hopes to present his proposal to the Bi-State board of commissioners on Jan. 22, at the scheduled board meeting. But it may take longer and require the scheduling of a special meeting in February or later.
The trolley shuts down on Sunday. Roach said there’s no timeline for when the trolley would start running if Bi-State did take it over.
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