Notes from the forum: Problems With the Loop Trolley (and why it might make sense anyway)

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{a St. Louis streetcar on Grand Avenue}

I’ve put away my torch and pitchfork (if only because the trolley appears to be a fait-d’accompli) and am looking at the challenges facing the Loop Trolley project. For dates and numbers go to the Loop Trolley website, for commentary and some thoughts on this week’s Loop Trolley Forum keep reading…

The problem(s)
John Carroll began his presentation by (rightly) pointing out that he wasn’t in town to “tell St. Louis how to (build a streetcar).” And good thing too, because the Portland streetcar line has very little in common with the proposed Loop Trolley. He lavished praise on Joe Edwards whenever possible. Fair enough, John clearly admires Joe as a developer, but some praise wouldn’t serve as support for the trolley. John stated, “The environment we wanted to create in Portland already exists on Delmar. You already have much of what you would hope to achieve with a streetcar.” That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for spending $50M+.

Then again John is a developer and not an urban planner or mass transit expert. While he clearly loves streetcars (after all he has made millions of dollars from developments adjacent to the Portland line) he’s not of the “mass transit generation”. He’s less about transportation culture shift than development dollars. John stayed at the Moonrise Hotel while in town and rode Metrolink from the airport to the Delmar station. He stated how great it would have been to have a streetcar take him from the station to his hotel. Really, John? It’s 1,400 feet from platform to lobby. So you would purchase a Metrolink ticket at the airport, ride to Delmar, take a minute or more to purchase a Loop Trolley ticket and then wait up to 10 minutes for a trolley car to take you 1,400 feet (assuming there is a stop immediately adjacent to the hotel) rather than take a 4-minute walk? All the while staring at the rotating moon of your hotel beckoning you from two blocks away? I don’t think so.

The highlight (lowlight?), or at least most telling moment of the presentation to me came when an attendee asked about funding. John stated that farebox revenue accounts for 16% of streetcar funding in Portland. To anyone who reads about mass transit this isn’t a surprise at all as large mass transit system fares return 12-20% of total system funding. Smaller systems generate an even smaller percentage of their funding from the farebox. See previous Urban Workshop post here.

But the moment was revealing as both Catherine Powers, Planning Director of the City of Clayton, and Joe Adams, Mayor of University City and Board Member of the Loop Trolley Company, did animated triple-takes. Very, very clearly this caught them by total surprise, making them appear to have very little knowledge of mass transit funding and the project they promote. I don’t wish to dwell on it or overstate the issue, but this episode tells me that some of those closest to the project don’t understand it.

Even worse, John then mentioned that Portland does have a fare-free zone that affects farebox returns and Catherine and Joe nodded with knowing approval as if to say, “Oh, of course, THAT’s why so little is brought in at the farebox.” Look, let’s say the Loop Trolley is the most successful revenue-generating line in the country, by far, and brings in 30% of funding at the farebox. That doesn’t resolve the funding question.

This would be a relatively short line and not be able to take advantage of economies-of-scale such as a longer line (adjacent to more property and businesses) in a metro’s central business district would. A block or more off the trolley line will get you single-family and 2-6-unit rentals, neither of which will be significant contributors of funding.

Significantly interrelated with funding and function, John stated that the Portland streetcar line works because it “connects housing, jobs and undeveloped land.” This isn’t the case for the proposed Delmar Trolley. A like situation in St. Louis would be to connect the Central West End and the 15,000+ Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University Medical School employees to downtown via Midtown and Lindell Boulevard and not Forest Park, small-scale retail and $500K single-family homes. In Portland, Portland State University and Good Samaritan Hospital each contributed millions of dollars to ensure the line extended to them and was thus functional as a transportation option. The BJC/WU campus is already served by a central Metrolink station and Washington University spends millions to provide Metro bus and train passes. There are no institutions along the proposed alignment to provide additional funding for the Loop Trolley.

Finally, John highlighted a construction process used in Portland in which an 18-inch trench was dug and trolley tracks were laid. He claimed a construction time of two weeks/three blocks. Furthermore, they laid open pipes perpendicular to the tracks so that any future infrastructure needs would have ready access. This made nearly everyone smile, except those listening. He went on to say that they could only do this because they did not use any federal money on the Portland streetcar line. John clearly stated that this would not be the case here in St. Louis and that we should expect to deal with federal regulations which require the moving of all utilities away from the line. I think this means that construction could take 18 months or more rather than roughly a week per block.

Why it may make sense anyway
Yes, given everything above the Loop Trolley may still make sense. Why? The argument is that once St. Lousians see and use a functioning trolley line that they will clamor for more. That assumes that construction of this line is on-time and below budget, that the line operates efficiently and that there are no accidents or other bad press related to the trolley. This line of thinking puts a lot of pressure on this one line.

The argument does make sense in that if a trolley line is going to succeed from day-one in St. Louis it’s likely that the lively Delmar Loop is the place. Several comments to this effect were made at the Forum: The trolley makes the Loop and University City better. Period.; the trolley would connect Forest Park’s 12M visitors to the Loop; if there’s to be a trolley in St. Louis, this is the most ready option.” Those are all valid.

The reality is that no other business district or neighborhood in the region has Joe Edwards pushing for a streetcar. If Joe was in Soulard or on Cherokee Street would likely be looking at a different project today. If all goes according to the dream we’ll see the CWE pushing to connect to the Loop line, and then Midtown, etc.

Streetcar or Trolley or something in-between?
John’s presentation highlighted another problem with the existing Loop Trolley proposal. He made it clear that a streetcar should “not (be) a cute little car rolling around, but an economic force.” This means, no slow, clanking retro restored WWI era trolley cars. Historic cars would require raised platforms at all stops (just check out the platforms built for the two restored cars on display) to be handicap accessible, and still would not be as convenient to the disabled as modern streetcars with low entrances and wide doors. The cars would be less expensive initially, but maintenance costs and ultimately the lack of functionality are prohibitive. A third option seems to be likely: modern historic reproduction cars. I’ll reserve judgment on that option until I see more, but from now on I’ll use “streetcar” instead of “trolley” as it seems some form of modern option is likely.

Speaking of seeing more
The Loop Trolley Company is hosting an open house at the Regional Arts Commission (RAC), Wednesday, July 8 from 4:00-7:00 p.m. with 15-minute presentations at 4:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.

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