WU aims to bring trolleys back to Delmar Loop area

| Copy Chief

Decades ago, trolleys used to glide around St. Louis in large numbers. Washington University was often called the “streetcar college” because many students from St. Louis rode trolleys to campus.

Now, the University is looking to help bring some trolleys back to the Delmar Loop after their absence from St. Louis for more than 40 years.

“Wash. U. is interested in the continued development and vibrancy of the Loop,” said Cheryl Adelstein, director of community relations and local government affairs at the University. “Any project that involves the Loop, we would like to be at the table so we can understand what’s going on.”

Backers are proposing a 2.2-mile, fixed-track trolley line that would run from Trinity Avenue down Delmar Boulevard and turn right on DeBaliviere Avenue until the Missouri History Museum. Many questions about the project still remain, so supporters stress the project is still in its infancy.

Members of the advisory board of the Loop Trolley Company (LTC), the non-profit group behind the idea, say trolleys would foster development on the Loop, provide environmentally friendly transportation and reduce congestion. Among the advisory board members is Adelstein, who said students would benefit.

“It could be a quick way to get up and down Delmar,” Adelstein said. “It could provide some additional transportation options, provide an additional way for people to get into Forest Park.”

In fact, ridership models show students would make up a “significant part” of the market for the trolley, said Tom Shrout, executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit.

The LTC has not decided whether the western endpoint will come to a direct stop at Trinity or if the track will loop around the Trinity Avenue-Delmar intersection. Adelstein said the University would like the western end to serve the 560 Music Building, which is at the corner of Trinity and Delmar, to give music students easy access.

Supporters said the trolleys would be electric-battery hybrids that run on an in-street track. The trolleys would run with traffic in two street lanes. Hours of operation would likely be from 7 a.m. until 1 a.m.

But the LTC, headed by Loop businessman Joe Edwards, still has to address questions of funding, what fares to charge, engineering, and who will operate the system.

Funding is the biggest question. The system will cost from $48 million to $57 million to build. Although there would be fares, they still would not cover the additional $4.2 million annual operating cost, Adelstein said.

Shrout said the project has some funding for engineering studies from University City’s economic development sales tax and other funding from a new sales-tax district in the Loop area.

Supporters have also asked U.S. Reps. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, and William Lacy Clay Jr., D-St. Louis, to acquire $40 million in congressional funding for the project. Private donations could also be needed.

Adelstein said consultants plan to present financing options at an upcoming LTC advisory board meeting.

Despite concerns about traffic and costs, many at the University seem open to the project.

“Any time you have public transportation that can relieve congestion, that can get people around, that is as romantic and aesthetically appealing as this is, it’s fantastic,” said Andrew Rehfeld, associate professor of political science and a former and future resident of University City.

Senior Kyle Koch, who lives near Kayak’s Coffee, said he wouldn’t be opposed to trolleys on the Loop. But he noted they would not touch main campus.

“I’d rather see them put more money toward the Metro, after they cut some of those funds,” Koch said.

Traffic was a primary concern of local residents at a public forum on the trolley project last July. Some locals said trolleys could worsen traffic on the Loop by stopping in the street to pick up passengers.

Shrout said the system could actually reduce traffic by providing another transportation option.

“You could make a case that it could subtract cars [from the road],” Shrout said. “A group of students, instead of piling into a car to go to Blueberry Hill, might instead jump on the trolley.”

Trolleys could also spur development, Shrout said, because building tracks into the road tells developers that the trolley routes are permanent.

If the project succeeds, it would put trolleys on the road for the first time since May 1966, when the last trolleys to serve St. Louis went out of operation.

Shrout said St. Louis developed around trolleys and used to have one of the largest rail networks in the country, with more than 1,400 trolleys. The city and many of its inner-ring suburbs thrived off trolleys throughout the early 20th century.

But after World War II, Shrout said, the rise of highways caused rail transit to go out of fashion. One by one, the city pulled its trolley tracks from the road.

“I think the region is coming full circle after a number of years,” Shrout said. “People are realizing that rail transit is important to having a vibrant city.”

Adelstein said the trolley system would have no direct impact on the school’s sustainability plans. But she acknowledged that “anything that reduces car trips would help” lower emissions.

Edwards, who owns Blueberry Hill, The Pageant, Pin-Up Bowl and other Loop businesses, devised the idea in 1997. A 2000 study by Metro found that a trolley system would be feasible and encourage development on the Loop. Citizens for Modern Transit then took over the project and founded the LTC.

The LTC recently acquired a federal grant to restore two old streetcars, which are now on display outside the Missouri History Museum and Commerce Bank on the Loop.

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  • PS. A footnote to the above: the University has been sitting on North Campus for years. Quadrangle Housing (the University’s off campus housing management company) has its office on this otherwise vacant lot. Rumors have always abounded about the University’s plans for the site. I know students who were working on a sustainable design for a housing complex on the site, but they were always reluctant to say very much, as if the future of the site was being hotly contested, as it probably was. The best information I could ever get is that the site would be used for graduate student housing, a very sensible plan. This was always represented to me as some kind of open secret.

    Now we hear about a “clean coal” plant to be built on the site. We hear that this is just a proposal. At least the administration is being transparent now, to their credit. Is it too late for a change of plan? I hope not. At least let’s have some public discussion of this.

  • This should be seen for what it is: part of a de facto policy of gentrification, and company-town-ification, with a layer of WashU greenwash.

    The trolley will run down DeBaliviere from the History Museum (a Metrolink stop) to Delmar, right past the Delmar Metrolink stop, on to the terminus of the Loop business district. As a transportation system, it is redundant. I heard Joe Edwards defending his trolley scheme a few years ago on a local radio program. When asked why a connecting bus serving this route would not suffice, he responded that bus routes can be cut (don’t we know it?). A trolley would be permanent, and would spur development. Loop developer Joe Edwards wishes to extend his empire eastward, and southward, to put upscale shops and restaurants all the way to the History Museum. He and his backers want public funding for his project, and now they want the University to support this as well. If the project proceeds, property values between Des Peres and DeBaliviere will rise, and more Washington University faculty, staff, and students will move in. Long term residents, mostly working class African Americans, will be forced out. This is how many community members perceive the project, including some of my African American students who grew up in the neighborhood. The University has moved aggressively to purchase property in this neighborhood, though perhaps the recent decline in endowment and the economic downturn has given us a reprieve. For example, the University’s proxy real estate buyer has made no recent attempts to buy my house, a welcome change since it is not for sale.

    However, the plan to construct a coal plant on the North Campus, instead of a proposed graduate dormitory, will no doubt result in more housing purchases in our neighborhood and on the Loop. The plan to put wind generators on the Corner Building, now owned by the University, is a recent example of what we can expect: greenwash to cover the overrepresentation of coal executives on our Board of Trustees, and the proposed “clean coal” plant on the block.

    All this having been said, as a non-driver, I welcome any and all expansion of public transportation. If this trolley will accept a Metrolink pass, I will certainly ride it. I welcome the University’s sustainability initiatives, because these are small steps toward a better future. I applaud the University’s constructive engagement with the Skinker-DeBaliviere community. What else can we do? The University is not going away. At least let us all be good neighbors.

    Lecturer Dr. Jerome Bauer
    Local homeowner and taxpayer

  • Tammy

    This project’s justifications don’t make much sense. It’s an enormous cost. Benefits: Reducing cars in the Loop – could be done by running a wheeled trolley, rather than a tracked trolley. Encourage investment – does anyone believe that developers need encouragement to build in that area? It’s fancy and it’s cool, but it’s not very practical. Put a privately-run, privately-financed wheeled trolley on that route (with dedicated trolley-only lanes, sure, why not?) and see how it does before spending that stunning amount of money on an experiment. Trolleys in St. Louis – yes. But in that location? It just doesn’t make sense.

  • Adam

    If you also look at the map, while it servers the Loop itself and goes into Forest Park, it does not really make access to either of those areas any easier for Wash U students. While I love the idea of public transportation, especially by rail, it’s a project that is more just for heritage and display, rather than something actually economically feasible.
    I also believe it will be more of a convenience for those already walking, rather than an alternative for those driving. It does not connect with the Wash U campus at all, so it will not be bringing that much increased patronage by the students. The short length of it also makes it more of just a heritage line. It does not connect centers of population (such as Wash U campus or urban neighborhoods) with the commercial center.

  • Not a Fan

    For 2.2 miles – $48-$57M to build and an additional $4.2M annual operating cost. And to fund $40M of the project the supporters are asking our congressmen to fund this initiative? Let’s compare this project to the 10.5 miles the Hwy 40 project that cost $535M & the amount of travelers each project will help. This is a waste of taxpayers money. Why not buy a hybrid bus – paint a streetcar design on the side – and have it run this route? This would only cost just under a million. I’m sure we could find something better to do with the other $39M they want.

  • Cheryl

    The money for the trolley should be put to improving Metro, not a competing system. I hope Metro service won’t be reduced on that route. If we must have a trolley, we need to integrate it with Metro so that Metro users can use their transfers or passes to ride the trolley.

    Without integration with Metro, this system is an expensive sideshow.

  • Adam

    “One by one, the city pulled its trolley tracks from the road.”
    Actually, when the asphalt wears down on a lot of the roads, you can start to see the steel rails underneath in areas where the rails where left. I remember on Delmar just W of Skinker 2 years ago when a pothole started to form you could see them. I’m sure that’s been paved over by now though.