Loop Trolley Off the Rails, Bids $11M Over Budget Threaten Project’s Future

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Delmar Loop Trolley

nextSTL has learned that bids to construct the long planned Loop Trolley have come in $11M above budget, threatening to permanently derail the project. The amount is more than 25% above the trolley’s $43M stated budget. Current plans call for the project to be re-bid without substantial reengineering.

In September it was reported that several bids had come in higher than expected. Those were characterized as “pretty standard”, and Joe Edwards, owner of several iconic Loop businesses and chairman of the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District, stated construction could be delayed a couple months.

Bids were being sought for at least four separate components, including rehabilitation of the maintenance facility, heritage trolley refurbishment, track and related infrastructure, and lighting. Bids for track and related infrastructure, the most expensive portion of the project, were due November 11.

Significant reengineering of the project would result in substantial delay, while it’s unclear if sizable savings could be found. This leaves the Loop Trolley seeking millions in additional funding, or shutting down.

{reconditioned vintage trolley cars were delivered for display in 2005 – the two cars, displayed along the proposed trolley line are now in disrepair (image by Gomaco Trolley)}

{recently delivered vintage reproduction trolley cars leased from Portland, OR now sit near Metro a maintenance facility – image via Iggy Uncensored}

The project very nearly didn’t get this far. In spring 2013 we learned the Loop Trolley was in danger of losing its $22M federal grant. The Federal Transit Administration stated then that project had “repeatedly failed to make reasonable progress on key project milestones.” The FTA’s Regional Administrator wrote, “Absent a demonstration of local commitment to the project and progress toward meeting the terms of the grant agreement, (the) FTA will have to consider withdrawing financial support from the project.”

The $22M urban circulator grant was awarded to just six cities in 2010. A separate grant was made to the East-West Gateway Council of Governments to design the 2.2-mile line. Funding is also provided by a 1% sales tax from the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District, which was approved by Loop building and landowners (not Loop businesses, as originally written). Additional funding has been provided by The Great Rivers Greenway District.

In response to the FTA warning, The Loop Trolley announced Metro transit agency’s senior vice president of engineering and new systems development, Chris Poehler, would take a leave of absence from that agency to serve as the lead administrator for the Loop Trolley project. The move appeared to address what the FTA termed, “technical capacity and capability deficiencies”.

What had specifically concerned the FTA was a lack of engineering and design progress necessary to get the project to bid. The Loop Trolley project lacked the expertise to move it forward. With Poehler on board, the project was able to retain the federal grant, and successfully open bidding.


{dramatic before and after visions of the environment along the trolley route show how transformative some hoped it would be – project renderings by Andrew Luy}

Back in 2011, the Loop Trolley seemed to be rolling along. The year before saw the awarding of the $22M grant. Tim Borchers, streetcar guru, was at the helm and thinking big when he sat down with nextSTL. He quietly left the project the following year. Banners announcing the Loop Trolley “Coming to The Loop 2013” were removed in October.

Then there was the federal lawsuit. The suit aimed to stop the project, claiming the line couldn’t legally cross Lindell Boulevard due to restrictions on commercial traffic, that University City and the City of St. Louis violated their respective charters when setting up the TDD, and that the planned route extended beyond court authorized boundaries. The lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge in April.

Now that the administration of the project appears to be working, and the lawsuit is in the past, simple costs may doom the project.

2012-07-01_1341163634The line has been shortened at each end, simplifying each terminus. New, retro styled hybrid trolley cars gave way to refurbished cars, which have recently given way to leased vintage cars from Portland, OR. Those cars are now sitting near the MetroLink maintenance facility near downtown St. Louis. Each of these decisions may have improved the line as well as saved money, but there may not be much more to save.

Sources that had previously expressed optimism to nextSTL, are now saying that the end of the effort may be in sight. In some cases, project partners have moved on. The Loop Media Hub had long planned to piggyback on the Trolley construction to lay gigabit Internet fiber throughout The Loop. Last month, it announced that gigabit Wi-Fi will be installed and available to Loop businesses and free to the public in January 2015.

nextSTL has learned that other partners are beginning to plan for the financial fallout if the project is never built. Efforts are underway to explore whether the $22M federal grant could be reassigned to another project within the St. Louis region. Meanwhile, supporters of the Loop Trolley are hoping additional federal funds will be made available.

Jerry Blair, Director of Transportation for East-West Gateway, told the St. Louis Beacon in November 2013 that construction could start in spring 2014. At that time, as the project seemed to be on track, Blair identified the last big hurdle, “The only thing that would jeopardize the project would be if we put it out for bid and the bids came in much higher than the revenues we have to pay for it,” Blair said. “That would be the only remaining big risk in the project.”

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  • Pingback: Chat()

  • matimal

    Why do streetcar projects in American cities bring out the worst in people. They almost always become lighting rods for the most intense divisions in a city. I just don’t understand it. Is it because people can’t see the real differences between streetcars and buses?

  • monopolytophat

    Seems like the project is “back on track” rather than “off the rails”. Should we look for an update on the mainpage?

    http://www.stltoday.com/business/local/delmar-loop-trolley-construction-set-to-begin-in-march/article_dd9d001f-e1b6-545e-ad8a-b229270fbc47.html

  • kjohnson04

    The Loop trolley so far has been a solution in search of a problem. We need strengthened mass transit; not a tourist vehicle. If we spent have as much time trying to avoid mass transit and worked to improve it…we’d be in a better place.

    Transit has to connect two places people are going. Right now, the trolley fails that.

  • Carol Crudden

    Thanks Alex for the prompt response and correction in the original text.
    One more thing worth noting: the building and landowners were allowed not just one vote but a vote per property owned.
    Respectfully,
    Carol

  • OPT INSTL

    The Loop trolley has always been about making it easier for the mostly white suburban “park and ride to the cardinals games crowd” to come to the Loop and drink beer and eat cheeseburgers at one of the Edwards establishments. This can only be accomplished if that crowd (and the tourists from rural areas) NEVER have to set foot on a city bus.
    Now add in the bonus of millions available (for life, not just start up) of federal money (and if you take a look at Bi State you see that Edwards will be free to do whatever he wants with that money once-if- the trolley gets going). plus he can contract his own private police force to protect the Loop– I mean Trolley, cough.
    If Edwards were interested in public transit, he wouldn’t have had all the bus benches & shelters removed in the Loop. And the Loop is well served by public transit if you don’t mind walking a half mile from either Metrolink.
    What STL needs is a north- south metrolink, not some ridiculous trolley for Wash U students families and drunk Cardinals fans– although it seems like even with the Trolley, BallPark Village is getting all of that business.
    With the $10million proposed Cortex Metrolink station the Trolley now ranks second on my list of most useless ways to “improve” transit in STL. Too bad STL doesn’t have any real leaders, interested in public transit that actually serves the public.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I’d say the Loop Trolley has always been about real estate development and supporting Loop businesses. Supporters have generally been saying this all along. Sorta the same thing as said above. It is true, in my opinion, that a project like this rose to the top and was presented as a regional priority for a federal grant due to a lack of leadership. There should have been a higher priority transportation project ready to promote for the federal Urban Circulator grant program.

  • Carol crudden

    The 1% sales tax increase was never approved by Loop businesses. It was approved by building and land owners along the proposed trolley route. There are few people who own land and a lot of people who “own” businesses. I suspect this project wouldn’t be part of a discussion today had the business owners had a voice in it from the start.

    • Alex Ihnen

      That’s correct. I apologize for the error…correcting in the story now.

  • Yojimbo

    Find a way, Joe. The manifest quality of the idea — its timeliness, its transformative potential — generated the federal funding in the first place. Don’t let this obstacle turn that potential to dust.

  • All that time and effort for nothing? Trees cut, utilities re-routed… A lot of physical infrastructure has already been altered to accommodate the line. I just can’t see Joe Edwards giving up on his baby. Is it possible that he’d say screw it and throw in a few million $$$ of his own just to get the mother done?

  • moe

    Hey, it’s only 22 Million a mile, but who’s counting? Yes, I’m being sarcastic but people need to understand that nostalgia can be fine and has it’s place, but there are other options out there at a far cheaper price…options such as trolley busses and working with other transportation units for starters. And sometimes you just have to say NO.

    • matimal

      What’s nostalgia have to so with this? How is one for of transportation more nostalgic than another? This is investment in accessibility. Where does this idea that streetcars are somehow not useful come from? We need to say NO to new highways. They are indefensible with declining driving numbers. You aren’t the bringer of hard-nosed reality here, you are just not a supporter of investing in St. Louis City.

      • STLEnginerd

        Moe didn’t say we shouldn’t invest in transportation, he referenced buses which are often referenced as an alternate and cheaper, more practical option than streetcars. You don’t have to agree but to not understand the argument you’d have to be willfully ignoring opposing arguments.

        Secondly this line is OBVIOUSLY trying to leverage nostalgia. How is that even in question? All the cars proposed have been retro style. A big part of promoting this line has been built around making the loop more of a tourist destination.

        • matimal

          The ‘nostalgia’ doesn’t cost anything additional. It would cost MORE if it involved the use of sleek modern streetcars. He’s suggesting that it’s too expensive, that its not worth investing in. The cost of the streetcar line is no more than a single major interstate interchange. He’s saying that St. Louis isn’t worth even that much.

          • moe

            And you would be wrong mind-reader Matimal. There are plenty and far cheaper options than a retro, hi-wire, fixed-rail style trolley. STLEnginerd had it right. I’m all for getting people around quickly, safely, and as environmentally green as possible (i.e….no more roads). but if we wanted to invest in accessibility…how many busses with handicap ramps and how many handicap crosswalks can be installed for 45 Million? What’s wrong with dedicated faux trollies? Dedicated busses? Items that can be adjusted as demands and road conditions dictate. Not just now, but 5 years down the road. And that is just two examples.
            Nostalgia does cost more….in this case, since the trollies are meant to be circa 1920ish, it is 45 MILLION. For 2 miles.

          • matimal

            nostalgia does not cost more. 45 million is pocket change in the larger scheme of metro St. Louis’ transportation spending. there are single interstate interchanges that won’t allow you to travel two miles that cost as much. All those motels and malls at interstate exits came after the building of the highway. The transportation came first. Accessibility is pointless without something to access in the first place. People won’t take buses on this route because there is nowhere to go. That is the point if the line in the first place. A streetcar line will encourage private land owners to invest.

            What came first, the highway or the mall? Answer: the highway. What will come first, the streetcar line, or new housing? answer: the streetcar line. You are either for investing in St. Louis or you aren’t.

          • jhoff1257

            $45 million is a relative bargain compared to the $100 million+ KC is spending on their 2 mile Downtown starter line. Outside of that I do agree with Moe. Metro and GRG covers most of the immediate area (unless you’re lazy and refuse to walk) and this trolley was sold as being a touristy, nostalgia type development. Not that that can’t have some benefit of course. I’d love to see streetcars rolling in St. Louis again, but I think our money would be better spent achieving that goal by putting it into the Olive/Lindell line and some sort of a North/South line.

            I wholeheartedly disagree with the assertion that Moe is not a supporter of development in St. Louis City (of which only a portion of this project includes) or that he is questioning St. Louis’ worth. This area is already accessible via public transit and various greenways. And by the way, there are several new housing projects in the area, all done without the streetcar. This “You are either for investing in St. Louis or you aren’t” sentiment is utterly ridiculous. People have every right to question the worth of a project and whether or not it makes financial sense. If a company wanted to come in and demolish 250 historic houses for a strip mall would you be calling preservationists out for not supporting the “investment” in the City? Probably not. When you break it down this project doesn’t make much sense. There are many, many more areas of this City and region that are in desperate need of this type of accessibility. The Delmar Loop isn’t one of them.

          • matimal

            Think what could happen with streetcars! think what would NOT have happened in Chesterfield without massive investment in fixed transportation such as I-64. This isn’t about coverage, it’s about economic development. Fixes transportation assets literally give value to property. it worked in the past in St. Louis and in Chesterfield today. it will work in St. Louis again.

          • jhoff1257

            You’re missing the forest for the trees. You just keep throwing highways in our faces. This isn’t about highways or “what could have been” in Chesterfield. No one is arguing killing the trolley for a freeway instead. You keep moaning about accessibility but seem to forget that this area is already well served by public transit, in addition to being very walkable. Take note of the wave of development that has happened on Delmar over the last 20 years or so, all of it completed without a streetcar. Don’t get me wrong, I love trains and I much prefer them to buses. But I think the only way a streetcar makes any sense on Delmar is if it is connected to a larger city wide system. Let’s focus on making more parts of the city accessible to rail transit before doubling down on an area already accessible by (more then one form) of transit.

            By the way I grew up, and still have many friends and family, in Chesterfield. Not at all a horrible place.

          • matimal

            Chesterfield is what it is because the rest of metro st. Louis paid to make it so. a $50 million transportation project is a $50million transportation project. A streetcar line and a highway interchange are economically equal. if you don’t want to invest in St. Louis, just admit it.

          • STLEnginerd

            They aren’t economically equal, they just cost the same.

          • matimal

            A very bold (and wrong) statement. So, you DO think investment in St. Louis city and non-highway projects aren’t as worthwhile. Got it. Thanks for your honesty.

          • Alex Ihnen

            An old-timey street car doesn’t cost more than a modern street car, and it probably fits the Loop well. I love riding the cars in NOLA. Connect The Loop to the CWE/Midtown/downtown and you have something.

          • Alex Ihnen

            My opinion – I know no one asked – is that rail is vastly superior to buses in transforming a commercial strip/area/neighborhood. The permanence (yeah, cost too) is the attraction for business and people. Short of really well done, super modern, badass BRT, buses won’t have the same impact. In terms of transportation, yes, there are cheaper ways of moving people. If I could plan the region’s transit – I may actually put everything in a comprehensive BRT network. After all, what we need is a system that works for our urban centers.

  • STLEnginerd

    What are the hurdles to transferring the money to another project. Is there any precedent for doing that with these kinds of grants… I don’t see another project being any cheaper to build than this one though.

  • Eddie Roth
    • jhoff1257

      I wasn’t aware I was watching a television show here. This post not withstanding, I’d still trust information from nextSTL over information from, let’s say…the City of St. Louis ;).

      • Alex Ihnen

        I don’t see any conflict in information between the post and the response linked to above. The basic information, and point of the post, is agreed upon – the project bids came in $11M over budget, threatening the project. What is astounding to me, is that the news had not been covered anywhere else. It’s an easy assumption that people continue to work hard to find a way to get the Trolley built. The current funding challenge is just that, a challenge. It will either be overcome or not. Yet, for a project that has seen years of delays, and overcome so much to get this far, this is the biggest hurdle yet.

        • Joe Bonwich

          What’s even more astounding to me is this from Eddie’s post: “The project was organized in a way that anticipates that bids will come in over estimates. That’s why a $3.5 million contingency fund already is contained in the budget.” Say what?

  • Presbyterian

    This is disappointing. I hope they can find a way to bring down the bids.

  • Imran

    You mean Goodworks did not need to close after all ? (Eye roll)

  • Adam

    it’s a good thing they cut all those trees down along the proposed route. ugh…

  • Justin Striebel

    Is there any possibility of true collaboration between the Loop Trolley leaders, the STL Streetcar leaders, and Metro? I know they all talk and there are varying degrees of overlap, but they’re definitely all different entities and differs projects.

    Might it not be time to get them all on the same page and working towards one larger and more connected plan?

  • rgbose

    Our ancestors made it look so easy!

  • matimal

    Getting the streetcar line done in Cincinnati took some astounding brinksmanship. Some streetcar opponents described it as “evil” and “dangerous.” Cincinnati’s mayor engaged in a ‘war on streetcars’ that bordered on the absurd. Streetcars do seem to threaten some people for reasons I don’t understand. They actually have moral problems with them. Don’t give up. It may take some very savvy organizational and political work, but that work is worth it if you see it as part of building a new and more progressive politics in St. Louis.

    • Mike F

      “…building a new and more progressive politics…” Preach it, brother!

      I wonder if the peculiar single-track configuration itself (if I’m not mistaken, a result of various levels of opposition to a double-track design, and the stepping-on-of-sensitive-and-influential-toes) had anything to do with the increased costs.

      Whatever the reasons for its possible demise, it would be a shame to lose it. I know that many who want streetcars back in St. Louis saw the Loop scheme as a waste of time, and even worried that it would detract from other efforts to bring any genuinely modern line(s) to fruition, but I saw the LT as a foot in the door for future plans. Certainly any lessons learned from the LT construction could be applied to a new modern line, at the very least.