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Loop Trolley gets road test

A Loop Trolley car pauses along the tracks in front of the trolley headquarters on March 26, 2017, during its first test trip on the full route from the University City Loop. 

There’s still no date set for the start of operations for the long-delayed, much-debated Loop Trolley.

Joe Edwards, the Delmar Loop businessman who is the project’s longtime prime advocate, said testing of the trolley cars and other aspects of the 2.2-mile line is continuing and nearing completion. However, he says it’s still too soon to announce a specific opening date.

“Nobody feels confident saying a timeline yet,” Edwards said.

Edwards said it could be as long as a couple of months away. But he told the Post-Dispatch it could be sooner than that, as well.

In 2012, when the Federal Transit Administration gave final approval to release of a key $25 million grant for the $51 million project, local officials said they expected the line to be rolling by mid-2014.

When construction actually began in March 2015, trolley officials said they expected the line to be in service in late 2016.

Since then, trolley officials have given several other estimates of when the line was expected to begin running — none of which were met.

Last December they talked about a likely spring opening. That morphed into estimates of late spring and then July. In early July, the hoped-for opening period was August or September.

In addition to the testing, federal and state regulators must sign off on the results before the line can start picking up and dropping off passengers between the Delmar Loop in University City and the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.

Eric Curtit, the Missouri Department of Transportation’s administrator of railroads, said the testing is “very close” to the finish line and that there’s not a single thing that is holding up the process.

“They’re doing well,” Curtit said Friday. “It’s a myriad of things folks have got to do to get these things done.”

He said the testing aims to make sure all aspects of the operation are “working together to make sure the system opens safely.”

A spokesperson with the federal agency also didn’t provide an opening date estimate or any specific problems with the testing.

Les Sterman, the Loop Trolley Co.’s president, said in an email that there are “just lots of details to address. Final submissions of regulatory documents, further staff training, etc. Nothing extraordinary at this point.”

The nature of the trolley’s operating structure also has contributed to the length of time needed to get the required approvals, Sterman has said.

“Things have been somewhat complicated by the fact that we are not only starting a new service, but creating a new transit agency, which brings some additional regulatory and procedural challenges,” he said last month.

In addition to the operating agency, Loop Trolley Co., a transportation development district headed by Edwards is involved. The district built the line and is overseeing a special sales tax helping fund construction and operations.

Also involved are officials with Clayco, a development firm with deep St. Louis connections that donated $500,000 last December to the project to plug a funding gap and keep the venture solvent.

The cash infusion came from the Clayco Foundation and Clayco’s real estate subsidiary, CRG.

Clayco also has donated some engineering and safety consultation and marketing help, said Brittany Burke, CRG’s communications director.

Moreover, Sterman said this week that Burke from now on would coordinate public information regarding the start of the trolley’s operations and scheduling.

So when will it start? “Mid-autumn at the latest,” Burke said.

Mark Schlinkmann is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.