Staff ed: A streetcar named dumb

Construction of the 2.2-mile-long Loop Trolley system—which guides three trolley cars from the Missouri History Museum through the Delmar Boulevard area, ending at the University City Library—began in March 2015. Touted as an integral link to connect the two popular areas, there’s just one thing missing: a working trolley. Construction ended in late 2016, but progress has been beleaguered by delays in the testing of vehicles and training of operators—and most recently, a lack of funding.

Loop Trolley Co. president Les Sterman wrote to St. Louis City and County officials in November announcing that the Trolley would not be able to function without a $500,000 injection of funding—money he proposed should come out of taxpayer’s pockets.

Often referenced as the brainchild of St. Louis businessman Joe Edwards, the project received a grant of $25 million from the Federal Transit Administration way back in 2010, as a part of its Urban Circulator Grant program—teamed with an additional $9 million from the federal government, $17 million from city and county funds, a sales tax and the Great Rivers Greenway. Private gifts have added up to a mere $500,000. For those of you following along, the costs have now added up to a whopping $51 million—a number that has the potential to keep rising.

The history of the Trolley is one of waste: Mismanagement of funding both pre- and post-construction has continued to afflict the proposed budget. When the system was originally paraded around in the mid-2000s in hopes of receiving funds, two Peter Witt-type streetcars were purchased and refurbished as a form of promotional material. Intended to be used as functional vehicles if the time came, they were parked at tourist hotspots to publicize the proposal. And that’s where they will stay—those cars now sit unused. When further alterations to make them operational increased costs, three new cars were purchased as replacements. Now—years later—similar planning issues have led to the funding of the salaries of preemptively hired Trolley managers and employees, even though the Trolley itself does not yet exist. And since it generates no revenue, there’s no way to offset the cost of paying these employees.

The plea for an additional $500,000 has fallen on reluctant ears: Taxpayers should no longer have to pay for the pet project of a few businessmen. Those who trumpet the hypothetical gains from the Trolley are those who seek to benefit from it—and they should be the ones paying for it, in the eyes of the Student Life Editorial Board. The original federal grant explains that “a mix of public and private investment is envisioned,” and it sounds like the public has held up their part of the deal, funding over half of the currently spent (but fruitless) funds.

The Delmar Loop has a rich history of streetcar usage (it originally got its name from the streetcar turnaround located near Kingsland Avenue), and the current project is not fundamentally a bad idea. At its base level, the concept of linking two popular tourist destinations to make a more cohesive space doesn’t sound damaging. But the inaction and misuse of funds, leading to its countless delays, have spoiled its intended message. It no longer represents a hopeful opportunity but a scorned sunk cost, in the eyes of many. Without a firm operation date in sight, the $51 million already invested seems to have disappeared into the void. While the Trolley isn’t a fully useless cause, St. Louis taxpayers should not have to bear the burden of one man’s money pit.

The supposed economic benefits of the Trolley to the Loop area—cited by many as synonymous with gentrification, especially in the context of the Delmar Divide—have yet to be reaped. Continuing construction at key intersections has plagued businesses and pedestrians alike. In a 2016 interview with Student Life, Edwards stated that “good, clean electric transit is the future of our country and a huge opportunity to promote economic development.” While this might be true in theory, that’s only if the system actually exists as a functioning unit.

While innovation in itself is a good thing, it loses its positive externalities if the people designated to pay suffer the consequences of its development. When you are in a hole, stop digging—and here, stop digging into the wallets of St. Louis City and County residents. Fulfilling the claims made from the outset requires the additional support of those who think they’ll monetarily gain from it.

Despite the aforementioned funding issues, testing began on the Trolley in the past few weeks, but there has been no formal announcement of an official opening date. If those backing the project—both financially and otherwise—wish to uphold the promises they made to their neighbors, they must ensure the process proceeds both transparently and without additional burden on the pockets of St. Louis taxpayers.

This article has been updated to reflect that Joe Edwards did not contribute $500,000 in private funding.