A Streetcar Thought Undesirable

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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St. Louis’s ill-fated Loop Trolley rolled along Delmar Boulevard for the last time on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019. It died in infancy, at the chronological age of 13 months and 14 days, but an actual service life of only 235 days. While it is difficult to determine the actual cause of death, it appears that the little streetcar that couldn’t never had a chance. It was an unwanted child whose birth was delayed for years, and who suffered from neglect, ill health, destitution and just plan bad luck during its pitifully short life. Ironically, the line may still get another chance to live, if circumstances allow that.

The Loop Trolley ran along a 2.2-mile route on Delmar Boulevard and DeBaliviere Avenue, from University City (part of adjoining St. Louis County) to Forest Park, the home of the 1904 World’s Fair, as well as the Missouri History Museum and other similar institutions today. It was a street-running line in traditional street railway style for part of the run; the other part ran on a single track in the median of Delmar Boulevard. It ran on the part of the street known as the Delmar Loop, an upscale enclave near Washington University—hence the name of the line.

Delmar Boulevard has witnessed a lot of history, for better or worse, on its way west from Downtown St. Louis. Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime, lived there for a few years after 1900 and wrote some of his greatest music in the apartment he rented above a storefront. That apartment is now preserved as a house museum. Further west lies the Central West End, one of the city’s most prosperous and historic neighborhoods, but that part of the street is also known as the “Delmar Divide,” a stark boundary that has highlighted race and class distinctions in the Mound City for decades. The Wabash Railroad had a station in the Loop area, Delmar Station, in operation from 1929 until 1970. Trains like the City of St. Louis, Blue Bird and Wabash Cannon Ball (named after the song, and not the other way around) stopped on their way to or from places like Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha and Detroit. The station sits empty today, near a MetroLink light rail stop (MetroLink uses the former Wabash right-of-way) and former transfer location for the Loop Trolley when it was running.

Building the line seemed like a good idea at the time when the neighborhood’s benefactor, Joe Edwards, conceived it in 1997. His mission was to revitalize the Delmar Loop, and he succeeded. Among other awards, St. Louis Magazine dubbed Edwards the “Duke of Delmar” in 2013 for his efforts. Edwards opened Blueberry Hill, a bar and music club, in 1972 and founded the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 1988. Edwards opened hotels, restaurants, a bowling alley and the Pageant, a concert nightclub. He also renovated the 1924-vintage Tivoli Theater.

Joe Edwards

In short, with all the improvements Edwards had made in the neighborhood, it seemed like a streetcar would enhance the Delmar Loop as a showcase for locals and tourists, and it appeared that the idea could not miss. There is still an expression of that now-dashed expectation on the Blueberry Hill website, www.blueberryhill.com: “Joe also spearheaded the Loop Trolley, a fixed-rail vintage trolley system that links the Loop to Forest Park and to two MetroLink stations. It is up and running, so come to the Loop and try it out!” Sadly, that is now impossible.

The line’s website, www.looptrolley.com, chronicles its long and tortured history. It says that Edwards “suggested a revival of the streetcar system that gave the Loop its name. He proposed the Loop Trolley to help attract the kind of development needed to extend the Delmar streetscape and link the Delmar MetroLink Station to the Loop.”

Edwards was not alone in promoting a streetcar line for his neighborhood. Other organizations were involved, including the East-West Gateway Council of Governments (the local MPO), the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), Citizens for Modern Transit (CMT, an advocacy organization), the Bi-State Development Agency, and its component, Metro Transit, which operates the local buses, Call-a-Ride paratransit service for persons with disabilities and MetroLink. Metro Transit also helped finance a feasibility study in 2000 that supported the proposed trolley line, and CMT helped form the Loop Trolley Company (LTC), which would operate the line. The Loop Trolley Transportation Development District (LTTDD) owns the line and has the authority to collect sales taxes within its jurisdiction to help support it financially, and imposed a 1% sales tax for the purpose.

It cost $51 million to build the line. The largest grant was a $25 million Urban Circulator grant from the FTA (Federal Transit Administration). Grants from other federal and local sources, sales taxes and donations paid the rest of the construction costs. A list of funding sources was reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Nov. 15, 2018, immediately before the line opened: “The $51 million construction cost was funded partly by $33.9 million in various federal grants, $2.7 million in federal tax credits, $3 million from St. Louis County, $250,000 from University City, $3.2 million from the trolley district’s sales tax, a $250,000 donation from Washington University, and other sources.” The LTC website said: “A combination of fares, advertising, and LTTDD sales taxes will fund operations.” It was not to be.

According to the website, a preliminary engineering study wrapped up in 2011, and the FTA approved the project. Construction began in 2014, and the website still says at this writing that it “is expected to be completed in late 2016.” In reality, the line did not run until late 2018, seven years after approval.

The original plan was to operate with two Peter Witt-type cars that were built in the 1920s and originally ran in Milan, Italy, similar to those that run on Market Street and the Embarcadero in San Francisco today. A cited report from British magazine Tramways and Urban Transit from 2005 said that the two cars were cosmetically refurbished by the Gomaco Trolley Company of Ida Grove, Iowa, and placed on outdoor display to publicize the proposed line. Another cited report from the same publication ten years later said that it was deemed too expensive to bring them up to operating condition “in part because they had deteriorated during their years on outdoor display.”

Gomaco in 1991 built the cars that eventually ran on the line, replicas of 1903 Brill cars. They were acquired from Tri-Met, Portland, Ore., and had run as the Portland Vintage Trolley from 1991 until 2014. Both cars were painted in cream, with red accents on Car 001 and blue accents on Car 002. There were three other cars ordered that originally ran in Melbourne, Australia and later ran on Seattle’s now-defunct Waterfront Streetcar route (1982-2005). Only one was restored at the Gomaco shop. It was delivered to St. Louis on Jan. 29, 2019 as Car 003, sporting an orange and cream paint scheme, but it never ran in revenue service. Part of Gomaco’s job was replacing the trolley poles on the three cars with pantographs, which altered their historic appearance.

Service was set to begin on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, but that opening was delayed for one day on account of snow. Mark Schlinkmann reported the delayed opening in a story in the Post-Dispatch: “Snow-go: Loop Trolley opening pushed back. Again.” Far from covering a planned celebration, Schlinkmann’s report looked more like a report of yellow signals ahead; if not red ones. An invitation-only dedication ceremony was moved inside, from Delmar Boulevard itself to one of Edwards’ venues, and the inaugural ride for invitees was canceled.

Schlinkmann reported upbeat statements from Edwards: “Edwards and other boosters say it will be a catalyst for economic development, add to the area’s transportation options, and help the St. Louis area attract tourists and conventions.” He quoted Edwards as saying: “The connection of the Loop and Forest Park is critical to the image of St. Louis around the country.”

Not everybody shared Edwards’ positive expectations about the line. Schlinkmann also reported: “‘I’ve thought all along it’s a boondoggle,’ said Tom Sullivan, a University City resident and civic activist. ‘It’s not going to help the Loop. It’s not going to help U. City.’” Sullivan was also quoted as saying that running a bus instead “would have been less disruptive and cost only a small fraction of what was spent.”

The line started running the next day, which meant that streetcars ran in St. Louis for the first time since 1966. For the first three days of service, they were restricted to the part of the line within the City of St. Louis. They could not go into University City because the Loop Trolley Co. had not given that town a required $300,000 deposit, according to a Nov. 20, 2018 report by David Hunn in the Post-Dispatch: “Trolley leaders called a meeting for Monday afternoon and approved the purchase of a $300,000 bond to cover demolition of the trolley tracks and electric lines should the project ultimately fail.” He also mentioned that “crime scene tape temporarily blocked the route” and caused more delays for riders on the first day of service. Service ran the full route on the following long weekend, which started with Thanksgiving.

The original schedule was limited to Thursday through Sunday, beginning at noon. Cars would run until 8:00 pm on Thursdays and Sundays, and until 11:00 pm on Fridays and Saturdays. It was part of the plan that the line would run seven days a week after Car 003 (the former Melbourne car) was placed into service, but that never happened. The final schedule, which took effect Oct. 17, 2019, called for operation only until 6:00 pm on all operating days. The line never operated on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

Even with only two cars in service, the plan was to run on 20-minute headways. In the last months of the operation, that level of service was only scheduled for Saturdays, six hours a week. On the other three operating days, there was only a single car in service, making the loop every 40 minutes. This writer encountered the same single-car operation and the 40-minute headway on a Thursday in April.

MetroLink Delmar Boulevard stop.

The Delmar Boulevard stop on MetroLink is in a cut, while the stop for the Loop Trolley was located up the stairs and around the corner from it and within sight of the old Delmar Station. Despite that proximity, connections were a matter of chance, and there was no fare integration between the Loop Trolley and MetroLink or local buses. Loop Trolley riders had to purchase separate tickets from vending machines at the stops. A “two-hour ticket” cost $2.00 and was usually enough time for a trip around the line. A day pass on the Loop Trolley (but not good on buses or MetroLink) cost $5.00, and reduced fare for seniors and persons with disabilities was $1.00.

The line’s farebox revenue performance fell far below the “dismal” level. Schlinkmann’s story in the Post-Dispatch on July 3, 2019 carried the headline: “Loop Trolley ridership and fare revenue lag—it’s raised just $22,283 in fares since Nov. 16.” He reported that 11,364 tickets had been sold since the start of service, that trolley officials had estimated ridership of 394,000 passengers a year, and that annual farebox revenue was projected in 2017 to be $394,433 for the first full year of operation. On Dec. 5, Schlinkmann reported ticket sales and revenue for the first full year (actually 12½ months) of operation. Not counting the half-month of November 2018, 16,770 tickets were sold for a total of $36,076.20 in farebox revenue. That total amounted to only 4.25% of the original projection. This past fall, the line needed a $90,000 loan from its special taxing district to keep operating on its reduced schedule until the end of the year. So Sunday, Dec. 29 was the last day of operations.

This writer visited St. Louis on Thursday, April 25 to ride the line. It was a rainy day, not the sort of day that most tourists would choose for a streetcar ride. The day and the ride turned out to be an omen of things to come. The car was supposed to arrive at the transfer point from MetroLink shortly after 12:00 noon, but it did not arrive until after 12:30. Car 002  was the only one in service, and it was running about every 40 minutes. Car 001 had broken down and was being towed by a large truck. The few riders who braved the weather had to wait in the rain, some for an inordinately long time, because a car was out of service and there was no spare.

It would have been a simple matter and a part of the “nostalgic experience” of riding a streetcar to have riders drop the fare (two singles, or a $5.00 bill for a day pass, or a single dollar bill for reduced-fare riders) into a farebox, but that was not how the operation worked. It was not easy to use the ticket vending machines, so the operator had to get off the car in the rain and help riders purchase their tickets. The machine on the car that scanned the QR codes on the tickets could not read them easily because the tickets had gotten damp due to the rain, so the operator maneuvered the tickets under the machine until the fares registered, which caused further delays. The car was beautiful, and the operator was personable and made a valiant effort to provide good service to the riders, but that experience was enough to make it clear to this writer that the line was in trouble.

The official announcement of the end came in a tweet posted by the Loop Trolley Company on Dec. 6. It went out over the company’s logo and said: “The Loop Trolley Company will end its operations of the trolley system on Sunday, December 29th. We thank everyone for your support, and encourage you to experience the trolley … and visit the many great businesses along our alignment.” The end came as announced, and it is now impossible to accept the invitation.

Schlinkmann’s Dec. 5 story also reported the imminent end of service, but that may not be the end of the story. The vicissitudes of fate, along with many instances of less-than-optimal management, combined to cut the recent incarnation of the Loop Trolley short, to only 235 days of service. Yet different vicissitudes may allow it another incarnation, and that could happen soon. The prior operation was completely independent of Metro Transit. None of the information available to this writer indicated any reason why the two organizations did not work together, at least for fare integration and scheduling purposes. This writer conjectures that Metro Transit, which suffered severe service cuts earlier in the decade and needed years to recover from them, did not want to take responsibility for a small and questionable operation, even though the riders might have enjoyed a substantial benefit if it had.

Photo courtesy Sarah Fenske/River Front Times.

If the thought of empty tracks without streetcars running on them saddens former or potential riders, it angers the FTA, especially when those tracks were laid with grant money from that agency. The FTA has the authority to claw back the $36 million in grants and federal loans that were spent to get the line built and running. Schlinkmann reported on Dec. 5: “The Bi-State Development Agency, which operates MetroLink and the Metro bus system, is the only option under serious consideration now, said two local officials, speaking on background about the matter Thursday night.  John Meyer, president of the Loop Trolley Co., said after a meeting of the firm’s board Thursday afternoon that ‘we hope a plan will come to fruition that may allow the trolley to resume operating at some point in the near future. Meyer in October had made an unsuccessful plea to St. Louis County and St. Louis to get some additional operating money. Bi-State’s president and CEO, Taulby Roach, said that he and his staff are reviewing the trolley operation ‘in an effort to figure out how it can be a viable transit option in St. Louis.’”

It appears that Bi-State is concerned about its own relationship with the FTA and any collateral damage that a default over Loop Trolley funding could cause. The agency issued a statement on Dec. 11 that said in part: “‘The current plan provides an opportunity—at no additional cost to local taxpayers—to see if we can reverse course on the Loop Trolley and turn it into a successful operation,’ said Taulby Roach, President and Chief Executive Officer of Bi-State Development. ‘A default on a federal grant could affect our region for years to come. Every day we compete with other regions for federal funding. Our job is to stay competitive—this effort supports our competitive reputation.’ One of the options being considered is to work with the Federal Transit Administration on a special agreement to re-designate federal funding from capital grants (which normally cannot be used for operational costs) to support the cost of Loop Trolley operations and provide possible capital funds to bring trolley vehicles and equipment to proper operational standards.”

That proposal would keep the Loop Trolley going for another four years, without the need for any additional funding from other sources.

Another comment from the statement: “This option would provide an opportunity for the region to avoid default on a federal grant, which could hinder the region’s ability to successfully compete for future federal funding for transportation projects. It also would provide time to create a new plan to build ridership on the Loop Trolley, develop a financially sustainable model for its operation, and maximize its potential as a regional transportation asset.”

The statement did not address the issues of fare integration, scheduling for connectivity or span of service, but it appears to this writer that good connections, integrated fares and a full-service, seven-day-a week schedule would go a long way toward encouraging riders to use the line, an outcome that would improve its long-term likelihood of success.

Loop Trolley Company Executive Director Kevin Barbeau.

Loop Trolley Company Executive Director Kevin Barbeau is optimistic about a new incarnation coming for his line. He told Railway Age that he hopes the line will resume operations early in 2020, and he said that the staff will remain employed, at least for the time being, in that hope.

Throughout its history, at least so far, the Loop Trolley (not a true “trolley” because it runs with pantographs instead of trolley poles, but a streetcar, nonetheless) has suffered from the cumulative effects of mistakes and misfortune. Why was Bi-State not involved from the outset? Why was there no fare integration between Metro and the Loop Trolley? Why were the Milano cars left outside to deteriorate when it became clear that service would not start soon (whenever that was)? Why did the not-for-profit operator count on a forecast of farebox revenue that was more than 20 times the amount actually collected? How many events, like the years of delay and the snowstorm on “opening day” that caused one more delay, were interpreted by the public as signs that the operation would eventually fail? We do not know the answers to those questions, but the questions themselves may provide a cautionary tale for planners and managers who want to develop new local rail starts in the future.

One important lesson that stems from the Loop Trolley experience is that nobody should plan a “new start” without making sure that there is enough money available to operate it for a significant length of time. “It’s not enough to just ‘build it and they will come’; you have to operate it, too,” said New Orleans streetcar advocate Alan S. Drake. The streetcars in the Crescent City attract riders, as do those in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto, Kansas City (which, by the way, is free), Detroit, Dallas, Portland and other places. The McKinney Avenue Transit Authority built its “M-Line” into an integral component of the Dallas transit scene, with a full-service schedule running with vintage cars, many of which originally ran in Dallas. With its sporadic and limited operation, as well as its separate fares, the St. Louis Loop Trolley did not duplicate these successes.

Kansas City Streetcar, now free to ride. William C. Vantuono photo.

There is now some reason to hope that the line will have another chance, and that it will do better next time. It is located in a part of St. Louis that Joe Edwards and his colleagues have developed into an area that has already attracted an affluent ridership base, while it also attracts some tourists. MetroLink serves the neighborhood, and transfer points are conveniently located. The streetcars themselves are charming, at least for anyone who ignores or does not care about their anachronistic pantographs, and persons unfamiliar with streetcars usually do not know or care. On a broader level, we can hope that the St. Louis experience does not serve to inhibit new streetcar starts elsewhere. In theory, at least, the Loop Trolley was a good idea. The failure was in the execution.

There is something unnerving about writing obituaries. In Ben Hecht’s Nothing Sacred, newspaper editor Oliver Stone pronounced sentence on reporter Wally Cook for propounding a piece of what we call “fake news” today. He said: “I have removed him from the land of the living” as he demoted Cook to writing obituaries for five years. It is especially unnerving to write an obituary for a streetcar line that had so much potential to become a charming feature that could have bestowed additional distinction upon the streets on which it ran, and yet lived for a mere 59 four-day weekends, less its opening day, which was postponed on account of snow.

St. Charles Avenue streetcar, New Orleans Regional Transportation Authority.

The line may come back, but only because transit decision-makers at a higher level want to avoid the embarrassment and reputational damage that a permanent shutdown could cause, and they also want to avoid returning the grant and loan money to the FTA. In short, bad luck helped to kill it, but another twist of fate might give it another incarnation. Whether a transit line lives or dies should depend on much more than happenstance or coincidence. After all, it is more than mere good fortune that has kept the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line in New Orleans alive for 175 years and counting.

David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service on the Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair-Boonton rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit, and on connecting transportation. In New Jersey, Alan is a long-time member and/or board member of the NJ Transit Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee and Essex County Transportation Advisory Board. Nationally, he belongs to the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). Admitted to the New Jersey and New York Bars in 1981, he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and a Registered Patent Attorney specializing in intellectual property and business law. Alan holds a B.S. in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970); M.S. in Management Science (M.B.A.) from M.I.T. Sloan School of Management (1971); M.Phil. from Columbia University (1976); and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School (1981).

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