Would Loop trolley spark development or remain a tourist gimmick? Part 2 | St. Louis Public Radio

Would Loop trolley spark development or remain a tourist gimmick? Part 2

Feb 16, 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 16, 2010 - Joe Edwards and other supporters of a Loop trolley did not get the good news on Wednesday they were hoping for. The Loop Trolley did not win the $50 million-plus from the federal TIGER transportation grant program. Trolley projects in four other cities -- Portland, Ore., New Orleans, Dallas and Tucson -- got funding. But the Loop Trolley has other grant requests still pending. No St. Louis city or county projects got TIGER funding; Madison County got $6 million for a regional port district.

Fifty million bucks can buy a trolley line on the Delmar Loop, but will it also buy major improvements in public transit in the region?

Not if you ask some transit advocates.

Those who support the trolley line say it's not meant to fix the region's transportation problems. But they do say it would connect two Metro stations and give nearby residents a traffic-reducing, environmentally friendly way to travel the Loop  without a car. They have been pushing aggressively for federal stimulus grants, even writing letters to Peter Rogoff, the head of the Federal Transit Administration.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Transportation Department is expected to announce the winners of its TIGER grants program (transportation projects that boost economic development). Trolley supporters applied for $51 million, which would cover the costs of building the entire 2.2 mile system from the U.City lions down Delmar to DeBaliviere to the History Museum. 

Even if the group does get its funding, some transit advocates who have remained publicly mum on the trolley have privately said that it would be a waste of money. They prefer to improve the transit that is already there -- Metro -- before talking about adding a new transportation option that they say would be nothing more than a tourist gimmick.

Transit advocates have their eyes firmly set on the St. Louis County election in April, when a half-cent sales tax measure for Metro appears on the ballot. If the measure fails, Metro will have to reduce service, said Jessica Mefford-Miller, chief of planning and system development at Metro.

Washington University graduate student Adam Shriver, who is helping organize a Metro campaign with local students, said a trolley would have "a lot of potential." But he added, "If it was jeopardizing the existing funding for Metro, I wouldn't be in favor of it."

But Loop businessman Joe Edwards, who came up with the idea of the trolley, maintains that there is no competition between Metro and the trolley for funding. The funding the trolley receives won't influence the funding for Metro's transit operations.

While he acknowledged that Metro is applying for the same federal grant that the trolley supporters seek, he noted a caveat: Metro seeks the money for transit-oriented development near the Forest Park-DeBaliviere station, not for transit operations.

"So I don't see it as competition in that regard at all," Edwards said.

If anything, Metro and the Loop Trolley Co., the local nonprofit group fronting the trolley project, have been working together to some degree. Metro has advised the Loop Trolley Co. with design and engineering.

Mefford-Miller said Metro and Loop Trolley Co. have also discussed a revenue-sharing, joint-fare system, which would make it unnecessary for riders to purchase separate tickets. It could operate on a smart-card system that Metro has been developing.

The trolley and Metro would still be operated separately, Mefford-Miller said.

"We're trying to be a good planning partner," Mefford-Miller said. "But this is a non-Metro project."

Mefford-Miller also noted the potential for the trolley and the Forest Park-DeBaliviere transit-oriented development to harmonize, with one feeding into the other. This potential was noted in the applications for stimulus money, Mefford-Miller said.

Edwards doesn't expect the trolley to be a miracle solution to the region's transportation woes, though, but he said the trolley would make it easier for everyone -- locals and visitors alike -- to travel between Forest Park and the Loop, two of the most visited destinations in St. Louis.

It would make the city a great place for young people who want to live in the city without a car, Edwards said, and it would turn the whole Delmar Loop corridor into a transportation cornucopia: light rail, cars, streetcars and bicycles all on the same street. And he feels that this country of cars and roads is finally waking up to the need for transit in modern cities.

He also sees it as a prototype for the future return of more trolleys. That would be a long time away, assuming this trolley becomes reality, but he and others are excited about the possibility of putting streetcars back in the Central West End and Midtown, where they once existed in larged numbers.

But urban issues blogger Alex Ihnen, who runs Saint Louis Urban Workshop, warns that the spread of trolleys to other parts of the city should not be taken lightly. Even though other areas may want trolleys of their own, the trolley "needs to start by being part of a transportation solution," said Ihnen, who has expressed mixed feelings about the trolley proposal. "It's not a toy, but an added amenity."

That novelty aspect has some locals and transit advocates concerned. They worry that it will serve only tourists, while locals will simply opt to take Metro or use a bike.

Edwards notes that ridership models predict more than 1 million passengers ayear, many of them young residents of neighborhoods surrounding the trolley route.

Even if tourists make up a large number of riders, some see a positive in that.

"It's a valid criticism, but is that so bad?" said Cady Scott, associate project manager at McCormack Baron Salazar, which helped draw up one of the Loop Trolley Co.'s applications for stimulus money. "It's a different animal."

Indeed, supporters say, it could actually be a blessing: More tourists coming to the Loop means more spending and more business. And that could be just one element that helps Edwards and crew attract the sort of development that they hope will continue to expand the Loop eastward.

"And it's just fun," Edwards said.

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