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I’m your host, Brian Adler. This Week in Urbanism is designed to bring you up to speed on the latest in urban developments, infrastructure, policy, politics, rumors, and more that influence the urban experience in St. Louis. So, stick around and subscribe so you don’t miss the Friday morning shows as we take you on a journey showing how St. Louis is moving forward. If you want to listen a little early, check out our Patreon supporter page at patreon.com/brianadler to support this podcast.
Today is March 24th, 2022, and today, we’re going to talk about everyone’s favorite transportation punching bag: The Loop Trolley. Yes, really, that trolley.
But, before diving in, I want to take a brief moment to talk about the unprovoked, unjustifiable, and unthinkable Russian invasion of a sovereign democracy: Ukraine. This is an area that I am no expert in, but probably like many of you out there, I’ve been waking up every morning checking in on the work of some incredible and brave Ukrainian journalists as they document the horrors of the Russian invasion and occupation. This is unrelated to my podcast but related to my being human and just profoundly astonished and horrified by the atrocities taking place across the world. If you can, consider avoiding brands who haven’t yet stopped their businesses in Russia like Nestle and their subsidiaries. If you can, consider donating to organizations like the Kyiv Independent, an incredible journalistic outlet, or perhaps CORE (C-O-R-E), a nonprofit in Poland that is distributing aid to refugees. There are many more causes that you can donate to, if you’re able and willing, and most of all – I just want to stand in solidarity with those in Ukraine. Thank you for your patience and, in just a second, we’ll get back to our podcast about urbanism. But folks, democracy and human lives are under attack. Both of those things are more important than what I’m here to discuss, so that’s why this had to be said and why it came first.
Anyway, let’s get started. If you’ve lived in St. Louis for even a day in the last few years, you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with the Loop Trolley. Service began with two historic streetcars just before the end of 2018. Those two cars operated on a 2.2-mile-long fixed rail line that stretched from the end of the Delmar Loop in University City to the outskirts of Forest Park and the MetroLink station on the southern end of DeBaliviere. The line was built with a price tag of just over $50 million dollars, with just over half coming from Federal grant funding. It’s operational funding post-completion was set to come from the Trolley Development District, or as we’ll call it, the TDD. This TDD was and is still today an once cent sales tax on purchases made by consumers at businesses within the district. And finally, those funds would go to the Loop Trolley Company, the chosen operator for the trolley, which is also a non-profit. It was expected at the time that the around $1.3 million in operating expenses would be covered by that TDD.
Sure enough, by the end of 2019, the trolley was no longer running. How could that happen so fast? What went wrong? Well, on the surface, there are a few issues that are just pretty darn easy to spot, some perhaps the fault of overconfidence and bad projections, others not their fault and the result of issues with suppliers. But, at the core of it, is the issue of a great idea that just wasn’t as big of an idea as it should have been. If anything, we should have done more with the Loop Trolley. That’s the main thesis that I’ll explain below, but first, here were some pretty obvious problems:
- Poor fare projection
- Not able to run full anticipated service with third car not delivered
- Issues with cars
- Delayed openings
- Difficult experience for passengers
Let’s start at the top – projections of fare revenue were off, like, drastically, way off. Officials in 2015 expected that once full operations had begun and stabilized, the trolley would generate almost $400,000 in its first year of service. That would be based on all-day, seven day a week service with fares from $2 for a two-hour pass and $5 for an all-day pass.
But, by mid-July, more than half of a year into its first year of service, the trolley had generated just $22,283 in fare revenue. That’s just over 5% of what was projected.
Of course, some of that is due to the second problem I identified above – they weren’t actually able to run that full service they had anticipated prior to opening. The operating schedule was reduced significantly due to the third trolley car not being delivered on-time. What could have been a relatively frequent service ended up delivering long wait-times and poor transparency regarding its service levels, and of the two functioning trolleys, they ran into frequent maintenance issues. Remember, these were historic replicas, not the latest and greatest in people-moving technology. So, the trolley had maintenance and reliability issues, and on top of that, didn’t have the full deck of cards that it should have had.
It also had its opening delayed over and over again, pushing back its operating start and likely losing some of the excitement that it could have generated otherwise. In fact, rather than starting in the Summer or Fall when riders would have been enjoying Loop attractions and Forest Park amenities, it finally opened in mid-November of 2018, just as it was beginning to get quite cold. Doing so likely stifled a lot of the ridership that it otherwise could have enjoyed simply because of the time of year it opened.
And then, finally, the passenger experience simply wasn’t quite where it needed to be. With delays, rather loud and uncomfortable cars, and a ticket system that seemed to not work more often than it did with a clunky interface, it was hardly the most welcoming thing to ride. Some of this will hopefully be addressed once it is integrated into the Bi-State system.
Speaking of, that’s where the trolley is headed next. Bi-State officials agreed to take on the trolley operations from the Loop Trolley Company with substantial agreement from regional leaders including the mayor, head of Bi-State, and some officials in the Delmar Loop area. There has been a lot of outrage about this with people joking about how the thing simply won’t die. Others mock St. Louis for supposedly wasting tax dollars or otherwise seem to genuinely be rooting for the trolley to fail. What these critics often, or really most of the time, forget is that the Federal government has already essentially stated that they will force the region to repay the $25 million in federal grants that the trolley received for its operations unless the region can get it running again. So, here’s the thing, all of you claiming this is a sunk cost fallacy misunderstand the situation. We will double our costs if we don’t make it work, and I don’t want to hear folks complaining about potholes and the lack of money that exists to take care of them if we shoot ourselves in the foot here and abandon already completed infrastructure projects. Moreover, the Transportation Development District is still generating funds and will likely see these explode in the near future (in a good way) when the grocery store and other retail opens on DeBaliviere, so standard operating revenue should not be an issue once this is running.
Anyway, we can and will get the trolley running because we have to. And, frankly, it’s stupid if we don’t. With that said, the best way to guarantee its success is to double down on the vision of the trolley and to make it something that actually transports people from one place to another.
The core of my argument rests in a topic of planning called Corridor Planning. The general idea is that you can build successful mixed-use corridors if you connect multiple anchor-type institutions, neighborhoods, and amenities along a corridor and link it up with transit and streetscape improvements. The Kansas City Streetcar line is an amazing example of this work in action. It connects amenities like the KC City Market through a downtown corridor including the Power and Light District, past hotels, a stadium, Union Station, and will soon even be extended to the University of Missouri – Kansas City. It has been a phenomenal success, is free to ride, utilizes modern vehicles, and is sparking investment the entire way through the corridor with new businesses openings and renovations everywhere. That’s amazing!
And here with the Delmar Loop Trolley, we can still see some success. We are seeing great development along its small corridor, with some great mixed-use buildings that are dense and transit-oriented along the southern end of DeBaliviere. But, as it stands today, most of the line is mostly going throughout one attraction. It reaches the edge of another, Forest Park, and the edge of one of our most dense neighborhoods in DeBaliviere Place, but really does not connect neighborhoods and uses well. It is mostly a line that goes through one attraction: The Delmar Loop, meaning that there will be few people who can take it back home, take it to or from work, or take it to or from their hotels.
That is why, to guarantee its long-term success and to fulfill its greatest potential, Bi-State and regional leaders should extend the line through Forest Park, where they won’t need to eminent domain anything, to the Central West End and BJC campus where it can connect with the Central West End MetroLink station. It would now connect the Central West End, one of our most dense residential and employment hubs through our greatest urban amenity and all its attractions, Forest Park, with the dense neighborhood of DeBaliviere Place, and upward to the great attraction of the Delmar Loop. Best of all, we wouldn’t even have to buy out tons of homeowners along the way because we would be running the line through public land and increasing the vitality and usage of its amenities.
This is, of course, just one solution of many that can likely improve operations of the Loop Trolley. But the main point is we shouldn’t stop dreaming or working toward something better, St. Louis. Just because something stumbled, and a Pandemic then got in the way doesn’t mean we should give up. Corridor Planning has amazing benefits, and the trolley can really bring some vibrant economic development and transit connections, if we simply allow it.
So, This Week in Urbanism, perhaps have an open mind on the Loop Trolley and start to dream up ways to make it the best little trolley that it can be.
Have a great day, St. Louis. To the rest of the country, we’re here in the middle, finding our place in the 21st century. Get ready.