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Loop Trolley gets a thumbs-down from Bi-State commissioners

Loop Trolley gets a thumbs-down from Bi-State commissioners

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Loop Trolley's long term future is unknown

ST. LOUIS — A plan to restart the scuttled Loop Trolley ran into big trouble Friday when Bi-State Development Agency commissioners failed to endorse taking over the line.

No vote was taken on a motion to advance a plan by the agency’s president and CEO, Taulby Roach, to have Bi-State manage the 2.2-mile streetcar line for four years as part of its Metro transit system.

Following the commissioners’ move, Roach said, “I have no further way to move it forward,” adding that he has no plans to retool his proposal to try to win their support.

“We’ve worked ... to come up with the best plan that we could at this point,” he told reporters. “But right now, it’s just not good enough to reach approval of my commissioners.”

It wasn’t clear Friday if there is any other path forward to revive the trolley, which shut down last month after running for only about a year amid a string of financial and operating problems.

If the trolley remains closed, the regional administrator for the Federal Transit Administration, Mokhtee Ahmad, confirmed at Friday’s meeting that his agency likely would file suit to try to recover about $25 million in federal money that helped build the line. The suit would be filed, he said, against the special sales tax district set up to fund the line and the East-West Gateway Council of Governments.

Asked by a board member whether his agency had ever tried to claw back grant money previously, Ahmad said “we came close” once in another part of the country. “A letter was sent and the parties involved ... did come around and complete the project,” he said.

Roach, when asked by reporters what would happen next with the trolley, said that’s a question for the special sales tax district set up to help fund the line.

Roach is on the board of the tax district with St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, University City Mayor Terry Crow and Joe Edwards, the businessman who for decades has been the prime mover behind the $51.5 million trolley project.

Krewson’s spokesman, Jacob Long, in a text said only that “we will continue to work to explore solutions that are least detrimental to the region and try to minimize any potential negative ramifications of today’s decision.”

That’s an apparent reference to Roach’s warning that defaulting on the federal trolley grant could harm the region’s chances of winning future federal discretionary aid for transportation projects.

Asked by Bi-State commissioner Derrick Cox about that at Friday’s meeting, Ahmad, the federal official, said a default “certainly would be a factor that would be there.”

“What do you think you (the federal agency) would do given the fact that you have this litigation going on and an application comes in from St. Louis for a discretionary grant?” Ahmad asked. “I’ll leave that up to you to answer.”

Page declined to comment on the Bi-State rejection. His spokesman, Doug Moore, referred a reporter to a statement Page released on Tuesday saying he was reassured that no additional county funds would be spent on the trolley.

Crow said that “while it is too early to know what will come next for the Loop Trolley,” University City is open to being part of any conversations with the sales tax district and regional partners “as we move forward.”

Edwards said he was surprised at Friday’s move. “I hope this isn’t the end; I hope this is a pause and that they will reconsider,” he said. He said he remained optimistic that something could be worked out.

But John Meyer, president of the nonprofit Loop Trolley Co., said the Bi-State board’s decision to reject the plan marked “a dark, sad day for the St. Louis region.”

Meyer applauded Krewson for supporting Roach’s plan, which would have used $1.9 million in unspent Bi-State federal grant money to cover shortfalls. But Meyer said he was “extremely disappointed in the rest of our leadership” regionally.

The company had operated the trolley, which ran from the western end of the Delmar Loop commercial area in University City to the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.

Although Friday’s meeting was technically of two committees of the Bi-State board, nine of the 10 board members took part — sending a clear signal of the board’s view of the proposal.

The unsuccessful motion, made by board member Rose Windmiller, an associate vice chancellor at Washington University, would have sent the issue on to the full board for final action next month. It failed to get a second.

Roach’s plan, disclosed earlier this week, would have used unspent balances from previous federal grants to get the moribund trolley back in service and able to sustain itself.

He said by 2025 to 2027, depending on the rate of growth, projected increases in sales tax district collections would result in the trolley sustaining itself without more outside aid.

Roach, at the request of Krewson, Page and others, said he had worked closely with Ahmad to come up with a plan. But Bi-State board members, particularly those from Illinois, raised various concerns Friday.

Cox and Justin Zimmerman, both from Madison County, complained that the trolley route duplicates existing service offered by MetroLink and a Metro bus line. “Many in the public, including me, don’t believe it’s transit,” said Cox, who took part by telephone. “That’s why it doesn’t have the ridership.”

The two also said the unspent Bi-State grant money would be better going to Bi-State’s own capital needs.

Herb Simmons, a St. Clair County member, asked why there hasn’t been written support for a Bi-State takeover from St. Louis, St. Louis County and University City officials. Zimmerman added that there also hadn’t been any votes of endorsement from elected boards in those areas.

In response, Roach said Krewson would issue such a letter if asked but that “I’ve fallen short of getting a letter of support” from Page.

Board chairman Michael Buehlhorn of Swansea called the idea “a bad business plan” and said that he worried what would happen if sales tax projections aren’t reached at the end of the four-year period.

Windmiller, a St. Louis County member, expressed concern about agreeing to a plan for four years instead of setting yearly ridership and financial benchmarks that could be reviewed annually by the Bi-State board.

County Council chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, said later in a text that she supported the board’s decision and that “it sounds like the commissioners are clear on the priorities for Bi-State and for the community served.”

Two council Republicans, Ernie Trakas of the 6th District and Mark Harder of the 7th, also hailed Friday’s action.

Trakas said there’s no community support for spending any more general tax money on the trolley, local or federal. He suggested that trolley boosters instead seek money from the regional Convention and Visitors Commission as a tourist attraction.

Harder thought that the trolley still had a chance and suggested it could be taken over by a private enterprise. “If someone else has other ideas on how to save this thing, let’s hear it, but the taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for this amusement.”

Jeremy Kohler of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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