CLAYTON — The head of the agency that operates Metro Transit says taking over the Loop Trolley may not be the best use of federal tax dollars, but letting it fail may be a good way to convince the federal government that St. Louis can’t be trusted with them.
Taulby Roach, CEO of Bi-State Development, on Tuesday updated the St. Louis County Council on a plan that would have the agency manage the trolley for four years without any new local government subsidies. Instead, he said, the system would use $1.9 million from the unspent balances of previous federal grants to get the moribund trolley back in service and able to sustain itself.
Roach scaled back a prior proposal that would have had Bi-State take over the trolley’s assets and liabilities, an idea that made some area officials uncomfortable. Instead, the 2.2-mile line would remain the property of the transportation district that was set up to fund the trolley, he said.
Bi-State committees will take up the issue on Friday and its full board at its next regular meeting in February. Any plan to include the trolley in the region’s transportation improvement program will need support from the region’s planning arm, East-West Gateway Council of Governments.
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said in a statement, “I am reassured that no county funds are being spent on the Loop Trolley.”
Bi-State does not require the council’s approval for the trolley plan, but because St. Louis County is Bi-State’s biggest funding source by far, its support may be no less important. Several council members have said they would not support any plan that uses county tax dollars. And during a tense interrogation of Roach, Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, also took issue with its use of federal money, noting that the struggling system had other needs.
In a letter to county officials, Roach wrote: “Please do not misconstrue my work toward finding a potential solution … as meaning that I necessarily think the Loop Trolley was the best way federal transportation dollars could ever have been spent. … Today we all find ourselves in the unenviable position of identifying a way to reassure the federal government that the St. Louis region can be trusted with federal investments by making the best out of a bad situation.”
The financially strapped trolley ended service on Dec. 29. Roach has warned that default could mean having to return some of the $36 million in federal aid that was part of the $51 million needed to build the line and make related street improvements. Trakas asked Roach if any federal official had ever told him that the region could lose out on future grants if it didn’t resuscitate the trolley.
“It’s far from a simple question,” Roach answered, telling Trakas that St. Louis competes with cities such as Cincinnati and Cleveland for hundreds of millions in discretionary federal transportation grants. He said Mokhtee Ahmad, regional administrator for the Federal Transit Administration’s Region VII, which includes Missouri, “is concerned about that default … and, of course, avoiding that default, not only for him, but for us, is something that we should try to do.”
Under his plan, Bi-State would receive about $1.1 million from the federal government to bridge the trolley’s current operating deficit and $800,000 to improve the equipment on the line. The funds previously had been awarded to Bi-State for capital projects that were completed under budget, Roach said. In an interview after the meeting, he told a reporter he did not know how much unspent grant money Bi-State had on hand but said it would need the FTA to sign off on any use of those dollars.
Bi-State would work to stabilize the trolley’s budget over that time by using efficiencies of the Metro district to reduce expenses and increase revenues from a sales tax in the transportation development district that funds the trolley.
Roach said the first year would see a deficit of nearly $250,000, which Bi-State would hope to narrow by the end of four years.
Bi-State would also quickly evaluate the trolley’s three vehicles to get them up to Metro’s operating standards and run a minimum of 61 hours per week. One of the three trolley cars has never been put into service, and the other two have experienced periodic breakdowns.
Among tenets of Roach’s plan to boost trolley ridership:
• The trolley would be incorporated into the Metro network, driving ridership through existing pass holders, especially from Washington University employees and students.
• The transportation district set up to fund the trolley would develop a program in which Loop business owners would encourage — or require — employees to hold monthly transit passes and park remotely from the Loop, using the trolley to get to and from work.
• The district would be incorporated into a Metro pass system that includes attractions in Forest Park with an aim toward attracting young employees who work at the zoo in the summer.
• The district would develop a “city pass” for tourists, bundling the trolley with other attractions such as the Arch and the zoo.
Why didn’t Bi-State run the trolley in the first place?
Former Bi-State CEO John Nations, in an interview last week, said the agency at one point in the advance planning had considered running the trolley but said he and others didn’t pursue it because of the question of what would happen if a subsidy was needed.
“The question became if the business model did not work as anticipated, what would be done about the shortfall?” Nations said.
He said it would be difficult to figure out how to apportion the cost of covering the shortfall, pointing out that Bi-State operates under contracts with St. Louis, St. Louis County, and St. Clair County to deliver specified services.
Mark Schlinkmann of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.