The cost of building the Loop Trolley has climbed to about $51 million, surpassing the previous $43 million estimate.
The 18 percent spike is attributed, in part, to street paving and landscaping costs. Project leaders have secured a $5.4 million federal grant, and now they’re seeking $3 million from St. Louis County.
Critics say the cost of the 2.2-mile trolley line under construction between University City and Forest Park is too high. And some business owners say traffic hassles caused by construction in the Delmar Loop are hurting them, including a man who blames the trolley as why he had to close his restaurant.
But its supporters argue it already is spurring development and will be a boon for businesses when the trolley brings in visitors. They also say that even with the additional costs, the trolley is being built for significantly less than streetcar lines in other cities.
Perhaps its biggest advocate is Loop businessman Joe Edwards, who has been promoting a trolley since the late 1990s and is the chairman of the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District’s board of directors.
“It’s always better doing things in a first-class way if possible,” Edwards said of the additional money, which also will pay for things such as station-stop furnishings, signals and lighting, as well as for contingencies should bids come back higher than expected.
Edwards said the trolley is attracting economic investment — he cited its fixed tracks as an advantage over a bus route, which can change — including millions of dollars in improvements to the Gotham apartments at Hamilton Avenue and Delmar Boulevard.
“It’s really the future of cities in America,” he said, saying more people want to give up driving and are seeking out transit and walkable communities.
In the Loop, the trolley will share Delmar with cars, similar to a bus, pulling out of traffic at designated stops.
It will run on a single track in the center median east of the Pageant on Delmar and will head south onto DeBaliviere, continuing on a single track on the east side within a new greenway. It will stop and reverse direction at the Missouri History Museum.
The museum had promised to donate $1 million toward the project when it was headed by Robert Archibald, who also served as the chairman of the nonprofit Loop Trolley Company, but withdrew the pledge in 2012.
The trolley has drawn in other private contributions, including $250,000 from Washington University. And St. Louis has kicked in financing by way of new-market tax credits and tax-increment financing equivalent to almost $8 million, said Chris Poehler, administrator of the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District.
The $3 million the St. Louis County Council is considering contributing would come from a sales tax collected to fund projects such as the trolley, County Executive Steve Stenger said in a statement. St. Louis County voters in 2010 approved a half-cent increase to the transit sales tax.
“The funding will allow the project to meet a strict Federal Transit Administration construction deadline and keep $25 million in federal funding,” the statement said.
Stenger declined a request to comment further.
“What a waste of money,” said Elsie Beck Glickert, a trolley opponent and former University City council member, of the project’s ballooning cost. “They should use that money to subsidize businesses in the Loop that are suffering because of this trolley folly.”
She’s a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to block the streetcar line. The suit contends the trolley will go beyond its authorized boundaries — the same claim made as part of a federal lawsuit that was dismissed without resolving that allegation, but is being heard now in state court.
“It’s hard to figure where the ridership is going to come from,” said Tom Sullivan, another opponent who lives in University City.
Construction had snarled traffic in the Loop, where one side of Delmar was closed as crews built the trolley line. Earlier this month, a car drove in the wrong direction of orange cones that designated makeshift lanes, nearly hitting an oncoming vehicle head-on.
But the concrete barriers came down Tuesday, and all parking returned to Delmar from Kingsland Avenue to Skinker Boulevard, Edwards said.
EFFECT ON BUSINESSES
The owner of a pizzeria blamed the trolley project as why he closed his doors a couple of months ago, saying customers stopped coming in because of the hassles of navigating a construction zone.
“It was so difficult to come that people just stopped coming,” said Mario Esquivel, who owned Al Forne E on Melville Avenue, just off Delmar.
Esquivel said he had been in business for about a year, and didn’t have enough savings to keep going.
“People did not want to go there because it’s a nightmare to go there,” he said.
And more seasoned restaurants are noticing a downturn as well.
“Like everyone, we’ve been affected, and we can’t wait for it to be over,” said Chris Sommers, owner of Pi Pizzeria on Delmar.
The St. Louis Bread Co. at 6630 Delmar Boulevard is set to close at the end of the year. The company said the decision came because its lease is about to expire and it opened a bakery-cafe in Richmond Heights, about two miles from the Delmar location, last year. A company spokeswoman did not answer questions about whether trolley construction played a role in the decision.
The cafe’s fans have launched an online petition to keep it from leaving the Loop. It had more than 1,000 signatures.
When Rita Navarro and Chris Dougher, who owned the Good Works furniture store, found out last year that the trolley was a done deal, they closed up shop well before work on Delmar began.
Tourists aren’t a good market for selling furniture and they knew the construction would be problematic, both said.
“It’s disgraceful that that kind of money is being spent on a 2-mile amusement ride,” Navarro said.
But Eleanor Ruder, longtime owner of the Compônere Gallery on Delmar, says her art gallery and gift shop weathered the ripped-up street just fine.
“I’m close to parking for people who know the Loop and the construction doesn’t deter most people,” she said. “I haven’t seen a downturn in my sales.”
She’s a trolley supporter and believes it will foster continued revitalization of the area. She’s looking forward to it bringing visitors to Forest Park spots such as the Art Museum and zoo, to University City.
“It will be a great way to get here and experience all these wonderful, little businesses,” Ruder said.
The Loop Trolley has been significantly less costly to build than some other streetcar lines in the works.
Its $51 million price tag is half the cost of a streetcar line in downtown Kansas City, a two-mile route from the River Market area to Union Station.
Milwaukee is planning a 2.5-mile line, with a $124 million budget. And a 3.6-mile line in Cincinnati is forecast to cost $133 million.
The Loop Trolley remains on schedule to open at the end of 2016.
Steve Giegerich of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.