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Pandemic has been the latest — and most daunting — setback for the Loop Trolley

Pandemic has been the latest — and most daunting — setback for the Loop Trolley

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ST. LOUIS — Despite financial problems that forced the Loop Trolley to shut down last December after only a year in business, longtime promoter Joe Edwards had hoped to have the attraction running again by now, at least on weekends.

“I sure thought it would be operating during the Christmas holidays,” Edwards said last week.

“That would have been glorious. Families could ride it and have this wonderful experience” as they sampled the area’s shops and eateries.

But the COVID-19 pandemic kept trolley backers from implementing their plan to resume service last April for four days a week, using money that had accrued in its sales tax district’s coffers. That’s been put off until the pandemic recedes, next spring or later.

Meanwhile, University City officials have begun talking about what will happen if the trolley isn’t on sound financial footing by mid-2022.

One possibility: pulling out the tracks and overhead lines on their city’s portion of the 2.2-mile line, which goes east on Delmar Boulevard into St. Louis and ends at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.

But Gregory Rose, University City’s city manager, said it’s more likely that the tracks would simply be paved over, at least for the short term. He said that would be much less disruptive to businesses.

“It’s reasonable for them not to be operating the trolley today because of the pandemic,” he said. “But that said, I believe they will need to develop a strategy they can present to the mayor and (city) council that will indicate they can successfully run the trolley in the future.”

Rose said restoring the U. City part of Delmar to its pre-trolley state and other expenses would cost $1.5 million, more than the $300,000 bond posted by trolley officials. The price tag for the paving option would be substantially less.

Mayor Lyda Krewson’s spokesman, Jacob Long, said St. Louis has no contingency plan for removing trolley tracks. “It shouldn’t get to that point,” Long said, reiterating the mayor’s position that some way to resume trolley operations should be devised.

Rich Bradley, president of the St. Louis Board of Public Service, said the old streetcar lines that crisscrossed St. Louis and St. Louis County decades ago were paved over.

‘No path forward’

While Edwards continues to contend that the trolley can be self-sustaining using its own sales tax and farebox revenue, a longtime opponent — community activist Tom Sullivan — doesn’t buy it.

“It’s time to understand that the Loop Trolley is pretty much done ... there’s no path forward,” said Sullivan, a U. City resident. “From the very beginning, people have doubted that this route makes any sense.”

He cited the low ridership in its lone year of operation. Ticket revenue averaged less than $3,000 a month.

In 2017, an operating budget released by trolley officials had estimated annual fare revenue of more than $390,000 for the first year of operations.

Edwards argues, as he has in the past, that the trolley has not had a chance to really prove its worth because of the various delays it encountered in getting its cars renovated, delivered and tested.

He said the trolley would be able to put a third car into operation for the first time once it starts up again.

That will help make the service more reliable and improve ridership, he said. Testing and approval of the third car, already delayed, was further slowed by the pandemic, he said.

“Once it’s up and running in a predictable way, seven days a week, (corporate) sponsors will be excited about coming in” and helping fund the line, Edwards predicted.

‘Too much money spent’

One Loop businessman, Alex Weir, manager of Subterranean Books, said when the trolley was running, he would hear “grumbling almost daily” from customers about the line although that has died down.

But he said he favors bringing the trolley back because “there’s been far too much money spent” on it to not do so.

“Once they tore up the street and we made it through all that, why not advocate for this thing and hope it succeeds?” Weir asked.

He added, though, that if it does shut down for good, he would rather leave the rails be. “Ripping that stuff up would be a huge obstruction” to traffic and business, he said.

Down the street, Elisheva Heit, owner of Flamenco Flowers and Sweets, said “the trolley is the last thing anybody’s thinking about” as businesses cope with the everyday challenges of dealing with the coronavirus.

She said she had liked the trolley idea but that it was executed very poorly, citing the various mechanical problems that caused cars to be put out of service. She also said “nobody seemed to know who was in charge of what” with the operation.

Denise Ivey, supervisor at the Pokedoke restaurant, said that the money spent to construct the trolley line — about $51 million — could have been put to better use on something else. But she said now that it’s been built, “maybe it could be a tourist attraction.”

No bailouts

Last year, Edwards and other trolley backers tried unsuccessfully to get St. Louis and St. Louis County to help bail out its financial problems.

Then, last January the board of the Bi-State Development Agency, which operates Metro Transit, failed to adopt a plan for Metro to manage the trolley for four years and to use $1.9 million in unspent federal grants to cover shortfalls.

That spurred the Federal Transit Administration to warn that if the trolley doesn’t resume operating, the agency might start trying to claw back some of the $25 million in federal money that helped build the line.

Edwards said when the trolley starts up again depends on the course of the pandemic, the distribution of vaccines and how soon people feel comfortable resuming close to normal levels of activities.

He said that could be as soon as next spring but “my guess is it might be beyond that.” He said the timing also will be affected by how soon business activity in the Loop area picks up, which affects the amount of sales tax collected.

As of last week the tax district had about $700,000, Edwards said.

Kevin Barbeau, executive director of the nonprofit Loop Trolley Co., which operated the line, said in a statement that its goal is to finish testing the third car and resume passenger service “at the earliest opportunity.”

For now, the three cars plus two other ones awaiting refurbishing in future years are stored at the Loop Trolley Co. headquarters on Delmar. Maintenance on the cars and the rails has continued. The number of staffers has been cut from 16 to three, although some part-time workers have been brought back at times.

Last July the trolley offered free service on five weekends and there were plans to do that again on a limited basis during the current holiday season.

“When COVID cases (in the region) kept going up, even that was squelched,” Edwards said.

CLANG, CLANG, CLUNK: With the Loop Trolley’s bell seemingly silenced for good, Jim Gallagher and David Nicklaus lament the money St. Louis wasted on the project. It’s likely to continue being costly, they say, if the federal government sues for its money back.

Mark Schlinkmann • 314-340-8265 @markschlinkmann on Twitter mschlinkmann@post-dispatch.com

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