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End of the line? Leader of St. Louis County Council says request for trolley funding ‘going nowhere’

End of the line? Leader of St. Louis County Council says request for trolley funding ‘going nowhere’

Trolley 001

Trolley 001 is shown on the first day of operations on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018.

Photo by Robert Cohen,

Updated at 6:25 p.m.

CLAYTON — The St. Louis County Council will take no action on a request from the Loop Trolley Co. for $700,000 in funding, its presiding officer, Ernie Trakas, said on Monday, putting the streetcar line’s future in peril unless it can tap other sources of revenue.

The trolley company said it would become insolvent if it could not come up with $200,000 by November and another $500,000 to operate into next year. The trolley will also reduce its hours of service starting Thursday to help make up for budget shortfalls.

Trakas, R-6th District, said that at Tuesday’s regular council meeting, he plans to officially “receive and file” a letter from County Executive Sam Page notifying the council of the trolley company’s request for money from the Public Mass Transit Fund without requesting that the county’s legal staff draft legislation.

Trakas said the request was “going nowhere” and called the trolley “the greatest example of a boondoggle, maybe ever.”

In a letter to area officials dated Friday, the president of the trolley board insisted the project just needed to buy more time to get to a point where it could thrive. It blamed most of its financial problems on lengthy and unforeseen delays in completing the project, which held down sponsorship, ad revenue, donations and ticket sales, depleting its reserves. 

The biggest problems, it said, were delays in the delivery of three cars from Iowa-based Gomaco Trolley Co., defects with the first two cars that got the streetcar line off to a rocky start a year ago, and a renovation that has sidelined a third car and prevented the line from operating seven days per week.

“Although Gomaco’s craftsmen are skilled, trolley restoration is a hobby, rather than first line of business for Gomaco,” John S. Meyer, president of the trolley board, wrote in a letter on Friday to Page, Mayor Lyda Krewson and others. 

Grant Godbersen, Gomaco’s vice president of manufacturing, said Monday: “I’m not going to back and forth on something like that.”

‘We have invested so much’

Supporters of the trolley insisted it deserves a chance — and also some credit for helping drive a building boom in the Loop on both sides of Skinker Boulevard.

“If you look at the trolley route and the development that’s gone up around it, it’s because of that public transit element that people are building to take advantage of the flow of people,” said Tom Schmidt, an owner of acclaimed Loop barbecue restaurant Salt + Smoke.

“I’m hopeful a solution is found. I think there are some growing pains, but if they can figure out how to weather a short period of time, it would be a terrible waste to not maintain this $51 million development that’s driven $300 million in development on the Loop.”

Maxine Clark, the Build-A-Bear Workshop founder, is part of a partnership behind a $90 million rehab that will turn the old St. Luke’s Hospital on Delmar into apartments and collaborative office space designed for nonprofit groups.

“I can’t speak to whether the Trolley was the best idea in the world but I do know that our project ... will bring 500+ people in Phase 1 who will appreciate the trolley and its access to the Loop, U. City, the museums and Forest Park,” she said in an email. “We have invested so much already and we must try to see it through.”

‘Got to be kidding’

It was not clear whether there was any support for a bailout on the seven-member body. In addition to Trakas, two other Republicans — Tim Fitch and Mark Harder — have said in the strongest terms they are against spending county money.

The county contributed $3 million to the project in 2015. But the council refused to dig deeper when the Loop Trolley Co. told them in November 2017 it would be insolvent within two months without another $500,000. The development firm Clayco stepped forward to provide the money instead.

Democrat Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, said in an interview on Saturday she didn’t know if it was wise to spend county money on the trolley line. And on Monday, Kelli Dunway, D-2nd District, said, “I’m persuadable, but I’m starting at the ‘you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me’ place.”

Dunaway said she would need to see “a whole lot more confidence from them that they know what they are doing and that this is sustainable.”

Representatives for the two other council Democrats, Rochelle Walton Gray and Lisa Clancy, could not be reached on Monday.

‘Support this project’

The letter from Meyer, the trolley board president, said tax revenue from Loop Trolley Transportation District is doing well, up about 15% this year. If the trolley were to go out of business, it would be up to the district board to decide whether to continue collecting the tax, said Brittany Robbins, a spokeswoman for the trolley company.

Asked how the trolley would survive without the county coming to the rescue, Joe Edwards, the Loop developer who serves as transportation district chairman, said he didn’t know.

“I would hope the County Council would at least introduce a bill and discuss it,” he said. “St. Louisans are really supportive of our sports teams when everything looks bleak and down and out, and hopefully people will still support this project.”

He said the request to the county wouldn’t have been necessary if the trolley’s three cars had been delivered on time.

“It’s not due to anyone in St. Louis not being able to pull this off,” Edwards said. “It’s just that, if these cars had been there and this service could have started out with a bang, with cross promotions and the involvement of school groups, it could have been successful right from the beginning like it has been in other cities.”

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