Loop Trolley set to derail without new county cash

Pictured above: County Executive Steve Stenger did not attend the March 12, 2015 groundbreaking for the Loop Trolley. Officials in attendance, from left, were Les Sterman of the Loop Trolley Committee; Susan Trautman, executive director, Great Rivers Greenway; St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay; Joe Edwards; Mokhtee Ahmad, region administrator of Region 7 for the Federal Transit Authority; University City Mayor Shelley Welsch; and Metro CEO John Nations.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor
glorialloyd@callnewspapers.com

The Loop Trolley could clang, clang, clang into insolvency if it doesn’t receive an emergency cash infusion of $700,000 by the end of the year and $200,000 before the end of November — and trolley operators want the money from St. Louis County, not the city.

That message came in a letter to the County Council from County Executive Sam Page last week. The county already gave the mostly federally funded trolley an emergency $3 million in 2015 so that it could start operating last year, six years behind schedule and millions of dollars over projections.

“Allowing such an expensive project to fail so quickly would be a disappointment and could have a wide-ranging impact on future transportation projects,” Page wrote to the council. “The system’s failure could send a message to the federal government, which provided $33.9 million of the $52 million, that the region should not be trusted with future investments of this magnitude.”

Page said he would prefer to split the difference with the city of St. Louis, which had a $23 million budget surplus this year, but trolley leaders told Page’s staff that the city “was apparently not interested in contributing.”

Unlike the city, the county has a Public Mass Transit Fund with reserves of money that can be spent on transit facilities. Page said the money could come from that fund if the council agrees.

“I would not support an appropriation of county funds at this time without similar investments from other stakeholders,” Page wrote to the council, although he said he would “respectfully convey” the request to the council.

The first reaction from local lawmakers to the request wasn’t positive, with 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, writing on Facebook, “It must be April Fools in October… This will be an amusing vote.”

On Twitter, 3rd District Councilman Tim Fitch, R-Fenton, posted the letter with the hashtag “#Boondoggle.”

In a report issued last week, the trolley said it had only raised $32,000 in fares in the year that it has been running, compared to projections topping $400,000, even with diversions such as comedians riding the trolley on Friday nights to lure riders.

In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio last month, trolley founder and Delmar Loop revitalizer Joe Edwards said that he felt the trolley couldn’t be judged as a success or failure until it is fully stocked with trolley cars and can run a full schedule. The system is waiting on a third specialized trolley car to be revamped for use, and it is scheduled to arrive in January.

It is currently only running two cars on limited hours, Thursday through Sunday.

“Once the third car is certified, sometime in the next few months hopefully, then it’ll be running seven days a week and people won’t have to worry, ‘Oh, which day is it running and which day is it not?’ and it also gives us flexibility, if there is a mechanical problem or anything, to still have two cars running and keep a good, tight schedule,” Edwards said on “St. Louis on the Air.”

Although Edwards defended the trolley as a serious form of public transit that can get a person from the Delmar Loop to the History Museum in Forest Park, he said the comedy shows on the trolley were a fun diversion from life, just like the trolley itself can be.

“It’s so much fun when people smile, and that’s what all the places in the Loop that I’m connected with were built for, just for people to put their worries behind them for a couple hours and enjoy life,” he said on the radio. “And having this comedy show on the trolley is just wonderful.”