Having watched every publication use the Loop Trolley as clickbait, I wade into this conversation with some trepidation. I have a complex view of the Loop Trolley as it sits garaged today. On the one hand, I think the Loop Trolley should never have been built as a heritage streetcar. I can’t help but look to Kansas City and feel envious of their streetcar. On the other hand, I find the idea of paying $37 million to the feds just to rip up the tracks to be a headscratcher.
I also think that while the Loop Trolley has rightfully earned much of its negative reputation, not everything negative that happened to it was its fault. And as someone who lives near the line, it was always a charming glimpse into the past seeing it go by. It was less fun waiting for 25 minutes not knowing when the next trolley may come. I see the legitimacy of the criticisms, but also the potential for a path forward.
Last Week, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) warned St. Louis that it needed to forge a plan to jumpstart the Loop Trolley by June 1st or pay back the federal grant money allocated to the project. And we’re not talking small change, here. This failure would cost St. Louis over $30 million. With that looming threat, it is important to discuss what options exist for the Loop Trolley.
Option 1: Shut it down
This option seems to be the most popular on social media. For many, it represents doing the right thing. The Loop Trolley was, from its inception, a misguided project that never should have been constructed. This option rectifies all of that by erasing the Loop Trolley from the public consciousness. And I can’t really blame people for wanting that. The emotional appeal of undoing a bad decision is tempting.
But it does come at a steep cost. St. Louis would have to repay the federal grant funds and also hurt its future potential for securing federal grants for projects like North-South Metrolink (or Bus Rapid Transit). Additionally, businesses in The Loop would be harmed by the disruption of track removal along the corridor. People often cite the desire to save the Loop Trolley as a sunk cost fallacy, but there are future costs to factor in as well.
Option 2: Expand it into Forest Park in partnership with Forest Park Forever
The Loop Trolley is, at its core, a tourist attraction. It is not real transit, and that’s okay to admit. Its role as a tourist attraction is one of its greatest faults, but that doesn’t mean that it’s completely worthless.
I am pretty strongly against spending more money on the expansion of a heritage trolley system that never should have been built in the first place. I have heard ideas to extend the Loop Trolley to Clayton or Maplewood or Downtown, and none of those ideas appeal to me. But I do think one route makes sense. A loop through Forest Park that provides access to the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Zoo, the Boathouse, the Muny, and more would be fairly valuable and would maximize the utility of the Loop Trolley as a tourist attraction.
Any expansion into the park would require a generous helping hand from Forest Park Forever. Not only would they need to front the cash for expansion, but they would also have to use their impressive marketing talent to change the perception of the Loop Trolley.
Considering the reputation of the Loop Trolley, though, this is an unlikely option. In fact, I don’t think anyone is actually really talking about it. Few things would be more embarrassing in St. Louis than to expand this infamous project only for it to struggle all the same. But if the Trolley were to expand anywhere, this is the only route that really makes any sense and could increase ridership.
Option 3: Operate to satisfy the federal grant and then reassess at the end of that period
This option has the support of Mayor Jones and County Executive Sam Page. While Mayor Jones has been a vocal critic of the Loop Trolley since the beginning, she has been outspoken that the region should look to satisfy the FTA’s requirements to avoid the claw-back of federal money.
The city just received a financial windfall from the Rams settlement. It would be really unfortunate if a sizeable chunk was used to repay the federal government to rip out tracks. That money should be going to long-term programs that fundamentally change the trajectory of the city.
Nor should the city be eager to empty its own coffers to repay the federal government. Doing so would mean further cuts on essential services provided by the city, and these cuts most often impact Black communities on the northside. I don’t think this path is one that increases equality for the city.
The operation of the Trolley for several years gives it a chance to build a reputation based on its service and utility to patrons. And maybe it’s still a bad reputation. The proposed restart of operations tied to the rejected federal grant last October wasn’t exactly inspiring. But at least we will see what the Loop Trolley can really be over an extended period of time with three cars operating along the route.
Additionally, it buys some time for the Loop Trolley to become self-sustainable through its tax district. With nearly 1,000 beds, a grocery store anchoring a bourgeoning DeBaliviere Strip, and the potential for thousands more apartments, the Loop Trolley may find itself surrounded by a construction boom in the East Loop and DeBaliviere Strip in the coming years. Maxine Clark, founder of Build A Bear, recently imagined Delmar and DeBaliviere as this city’s “Hollywood and Vine” in an interview.
With the tax district already funding roughly 75% of the budget, new construction will offer a fare free future for the Loop Trolley that makes it more convenient to ride than driving through the densifying corridor. Part of me thinks the Loop Trolley could be a thriving and whimsical people mover a decade from now as this part of town builds out.
Of course, this could still fail. With the Loop Trolley’s dismal reputation, ridership could remain low and the project could still sink before satisfying the grant requirements. But that seems only marginally worse than just repaying the grant funds right now.
An impending Deadline
February 1st is the deadline for the region to come up with a plan for restarting the Loop Trolley. It will be interesting to see what happens. I think it would be in everyone’s best interest to see the Loop Trolley fight on.