Public transportation

St. Louis Thought Hiring a Comedian Would Boost Trolley Ridership?!

It didn't, and now the Loop Trolley needs a $700,000 bailout to stay afloat.

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Despite millions in federal aid, its own dedicated taxing district, and onboard live comedy, the St. Louis Loop Trolley just can't seem to get it together.

The 2.2-mile streetcar line, which runs from a history museum in St. Louis' Forest Park to a string of bars and restaurants along Delmar Street in neighboring University City, has suffered from delays, budget overruns, and disappointing ridership and revenue numbers.

Local officials now say that it will need a bailout to keep operating through the end of the year.

"The Loop Trolley was an ambitious idea. When it was unveiled in 2010, its supporters predicted that the trolley would spark commercial development and that ticket sales would cover the costs of trolley operations. This has not yet happened," wrote St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, a member of the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District (TDD), in a letter to the St. Louis City Council on Friday.

The Loop Trolley TDD owns the trolley and partially funds it through a special district-wide 1 cent sales tax.

Without a $200,000 infusion of cash, Page says, the trolley system will be insolvent come November 15. It will need another $500,000 to keep operating into 2020. A failure to prop up the trolley would put future federal grants to St. Louis at risk, he warns.

Combined spending on the Loop Trolley totals $52 million, of which $33.9 million was provided by the federal government. The project was originally supposed to cost $44 million and finish with major construction by fall 2012. Delays pushed its opening date to November 2018.

Graham Renz, a policy analyst with the Show Me Institute, says letting the Loop Trolley fold could risk future federal funding, but that bailing it out wouldn't look too much better.

"I think it will be a blemish on St. Louis' record either way," says Renz. "Whether or not it's running, it's a bad idea. Its existence signals to the feds that we don't know what we're doing."

Demand for transit along the Loop Trolley's route was never going to be high, says Renz, noting that the area was already serviced by several bus routes. The decision to build it, he argues, was rooted in a mistaken belief that a rail transit line would spark additional business development.

The construction of the trolley line seemed to have had the opposite effect, disrupting access to existing businesses and contributing to the closure of several of them. The Loop Trolley TDD and the University City government both ended up issuing loans to businesses harmed by the trolley's construction.

Since opening, ridership and farebox revenue have been disappointing. Estimates from 2017 predicted the Loop Trolley would earn $428,672 from ticket sales in 2019. Instead, it has pulled in only $32,456 from its November 2018 opening through September of this year, according to the St. Louis Business Journal.

The service made only $3,069 in September, despite the Loop Trolley unveiling its Friday Laugh Track service, in which a comedian performs a 40-minute set for the duration of the 2.2-mile route.

Trolley advocates blame low ridership on the Loop Trolley's partial four-day a week schedule. A $700,000 infusion of cash, they argue, would give the trolley enough time to get a third car into service, after which a mix of ticket sales, sales tax revenue, and sponsorships should be enough to sustain it.

"We believe the small drop in the bucket from millions of dollars in funds raised specifically for public transit, would carry operations into next year," wrote John Meyers, board chairman of the non-profit corporation that operates trolley service, in a letter to city and county officials. "We are not asking for permanent funding, but for a lifeline that will enable us to achieve seven day service and test our original business model for sustainability."

Page said in his letter to the city council that he was reluctant to spend county money on the Loop Trolley without the city or other stakeholders picking up a proportional share of the tab. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the city hasn't ruled out a bailout, but no decision has been made yet.

Renz says the Loop Trolley should be allowed to go under, giving time for the various stakeholders to get their management house in order. "This is the most textbook example of throwing good money after bad," he says of the idea of bailing out the trolley.

From Washington D.C. to Seattle, streetcar projects have proven disappointing, suffering from major cost overruns, delays, and dismal ridership numbers. Even public transit advocates have been critical of them for doing little for urban mobility while showering most of their benefits on developers.

Taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook to subsidize a mode of transit that benefits only a handful of tourists and property owners.

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  1. Didn’t RTFA, but lemme guess: Ridership plummeted?

    1. Did not plummet, never materialized.
      As always.

  2. So what you are saying is that commuters have no desire for these streetcars?

  3. Lyle Lanley could’ve told you as much.

  4. This whole thing is a joke, so playing a comedy routine for the passengers seems entirely appropriate here.

  5. 40 minutes for a 2.2 mile ride? Walking would almost be faster.
    And no uncomfortable wooden seats.

    1. Standing would be faster. I’m assuming 2.2 mi. is the whole loop, so to hear the entire comic set you need to ride until you’re back where you started.

  6. now the Loop Trolley needs a $700,000 bailout to stay afloat.

    That’s the punchline!

  7. A $700,000 infusion of cash, they argue, would give the trolley enough time to get a third car into service, after which a mix of ticket sales, sales tax revenue, and sponsorships should be enough to sustain it.

    The punchline to any public works in the red is more tax dollars.

  8. “It didn’t, and now the Loop Trolley needs a $700,000 bailout to stay afloat.”

    The biggest joke is on the people of St. Louis.
    Its turning into another socialist shit hole like Detroit, LA, SF, Chicago and NYC.
    Enjoy your misery.
    You voted for it.

    1. So pity because those who voted were trusting them. This article https://inspirationfeed.com/turn-your-papers-into-masterpieces/generalize some ideas presented here.

  9. but muh public transit

  10. I swear I’ve read this piece before. Maybe it was some other city that had a transit project that came in way over budget, way overdue and way overhyped and turned out to be just a huge clusterfuck of a boondoggle, but I can’t recall offhand any other city that’s ever had that particular set of problems.

    1. St Louis trolley folly mentioned on reason last time costs ballooned and needed taxpayers to subsidize.

      https://reason.com/2017/08/04/americas-cities-double-down-on-trolley-f/

  11. nobody needs a ride from the Pageant to Blueberry Hill.

    1. You expect Fats Domino to walk?

      1. not in his current state, no.

  12. It’s too bad absolutely no one saw this coming.

  13. Romance of the Rails is written by a rail fan who never the less shows all the ways light rail is fucked and always has been a useless transit option.

  14. But some really smart people with the best of intentions told us this was a great idea. Everybody likes trolleys right?…Right?…. (is my microphone working?)

  15. Its existence signals to the feds that we don’t know what we’re doing.

    That’s ok. They don’t either.

    1. Yeah it was rather jarring to read that line. I was immediately wondering whether the person who said it had any actual prior experience with federal funding, because it’s clearly apparent that the likelihood of a project’s fiscal success has no bearing on its likelihood to receive federal funding.

  16. “Even public transit advocates have been critical of them for doing little for urban mobility while showering most of their benefits on developers.”

    And there you have it, folks.
    Any one willing to bet a venn diagram of developers and campaign contributors looks like a single circle?

  17. “The Loop Trolley was an ambitious idea. When it was unveiled in 2010, its supporters predicted that the trolley would spark commercial development and that ticket sales would cover the costs of trolley operations. This has not yet happened.”

    Well, there’s your solution right there. Get ahold of the supporters, I’m sure they’ll pony up the needed funds.

    Right?

  18. Indianapolis has its own dumbass boondoggle public transit scheme running. They choose some of the most heavily car-travelled routes and bit off a lane for these idiotic electric busses and elevated median stations. I think they originally were in monorail land but they could only pass the bus version. Anyway, ridership sucks balls even harder than car traffic as money vanishes into the project.

    They also have painted stupid bike lanes all over the fucking place with nonsensical turn lane crossovers that would be dangerous, if only the spandex people would use them. The result is much tighter car lanes suitable only for smart cars in districts heavily used by dump trucks and whatnot.

    And you know the penny taxes are never going away.

    Meanwhile the boondoggle factory is in roundabout mode–a network of gleaming roundabouts clogged with confused elderlies connected by potholed and collapsing surface streets. I like roundabouts myself, they improve traffic flow when people know how they work, I just don’t like paying for them.

  19. $44 million for a 2.2 mile trolley?? Change the name to “light rail” and you can add another zero on to that dollar amount for the same length of track.

    1. $44 million for a 2.2 mile trolley??

      Oh, I can top that. Ann Arbor wants to spend $55 million for a 2.75 mile … wait for it … bikepath.

  20. The reality is that basically one politically connected person in St. Louis (Joe Edwards) thought it was a neat idea.

    Everyone else thought it was a stupid idea and a waste of money. Literally no one besides him and his circle of cronies thought it was a good idea.

  21. “The Loop Trolley was an ambitious idea…”
    I think they misspelled “idiotic idea”

  22. “Its existence signals to the feds that we don’t know what we’re doing.”

    God forbid that these slavers lose reputation instead of taxpayers not subsidizing useless shit.

  23. Joe Edwards crying on the local news last night. “How can you stop this project before it has had a chance to be completed and be successful?” Face it, Joe. It was dead before it even got started.

  24. its supporters predicted that the trolley would spark commercial development and that ticket sales would cover the costs of trolley operations.

    Find them and make them pay.

  25. Please don’t judge us here in the Lou. Well, you can judge the morons who dreamed this up and made it happen. Anyone not involved KNEW this would happen. The wider story is even more interesting. Half the bars and restaurants it serves are owned by one man. One man who was the driving force behind this debacle. One man who would likely tell you that progressive policies are the best policies and that corporate greed is ruining our country.

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