St. Louis’ Loop District Gets Endorsement from Feds with Grant for Streetcar

» New “trolley lines” will connect to two light rail stations and activate region’s most urban district outside of downtown.

St. Louis’ successful bid for a $25 million grant to partially fund the construction of a new streetcar line in the city’s Loop district is being hailed in the local press as the latest achievement of a man who has in just a few of decades taken what was once a downtrodden street and transformed it into one of the city’s most active commercial areas. Joe Edwards — the “mayor” of the Delmar Loop — started a restaurant, then restored a concert hall, then opened a hotel and a bowling alley, and recently he has been the primary proponent of this rail project.

From that perspective, it makes sense that of the nine streetcar systems* the federal government has funded this year (thanks to the TIGER and Urban Circulator grants), only St. Louis will be constructing a line outside of its downtown. The rest, including Fort Worth, whose project I described earlier this month, will have their new street-running trains in the center-city.

But the Loop, which straddles the City of St. Louis and University City (both in St. Louis County), is as vital as the downtowns of many smaller cities, and it’s arguably only indirectly served by rapid transit. Its heart is roughly a half-mile from the Delmar and University City Metrolink light rail stations; Mr. Edwards will clearly see his business improve by having streetcars run in front of his enterprises, to and from the rapid transit stations and to the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.

The 2.2-mile, $44 million St. Louis project has been planned for for more than a decade. It will run along Delmar Boulevard and DeBaliviere Avenue. Construction is planned to begin at the end of 2011, with service sometime in 2012. Vehicles will be designed to include batteries, allowing them to run through some sections without an overhead catenary. Depending on the progress of other cities, this could make St. Louis the first city in the U.S. to experiment with this sort of alternative propulsion for rail vehicles.

To the credit of the streetcar system proponents, they have raised much of the local money for the project themselves, leaving St. Louis County to dedicate its voter-approved transit expansion program to bus rapid transit, light rail, and commuter rail routes serving less-served places in the metropolitan area. It would probably be unreasonable to suggest using region-wide funds for a streetcar project running in communities so close to existing rapid transit.

But to partially make up the $19 million in construction costs not being sponsored by the federal government, the streetcar will get $5 to 8 million from private sources in addition to $6 million from the East-West Gateway Council of Governments (the local MPO). Operations will be covered by a transportation tax residents in the surrounding area approved by 97%. This strong show of local support, both financial and political, is likely one of the reasons St. Louis won the grant from the U.S. DOT over so many competitors.

From an operations perspective, the project won’t do much to improve access, since its most distant station is less than a mile from an existing Metrolink stop. With nine proposed stations on the short line and vehicles running only every ten minutes, it will in many cases be faster to walk. The historic-looking vehicles will not have low floors, meaning they won’t be able to provide nowadays essential handicapped access; just as bad, they will have no capacity advantages over traditional buses (unfortunately a routine problem for most U.S. streetcar programs).

Edwards, the neighborhood developer, has been a proponent of eventually extending the streetcar route all the way to the riverfront, mirroring the route of the city’s old trolley network. Yet this would needlessly duplicate the services already provided by Metrolink. Rather, extensions south along Big Bend Boulevard, passing by the University City Metrolink Station, the two campuses of Washington University, and reaching Richmond Heights, could be truly valuable since it would encourage transit use by students for local-area commutes and connect dense areas with a corridor not currently serviced by rapid transit.

But the program isn’t — at least at the beginning — ready to support significant increases in the number of vehicles using the line. The section of the line on DeBaliviere (leading up to Forest Park) and part of the route on Delmar will be built with only one lane for the streetcars (though it will be separated from automobile traffic, unlike the other sections). This limits frequency since trains heading in both directions will use the same right-of-way.

These are, however, the consequences of what are in transport terms still relativity small investments; similar criticisms could probably be lobbed at many of the other starter streetcar lines currently being developed in the U.S. It’s expensive to invest in a new rail line — putting in the maintenance shops, buying the vehicles, maintaining the track — so even a short line racks up cash in no time. Only so much can be built at such a low budget as is being made possible by these federal grants.

Moreover, whether transport planners like it or not, these systems are in reality a lot more oriented towards fulfilling economic development goals than providing increased mobility. More transportation of any sort, even if it doesn’t seem particularly useful for many people, will encourage investment in new construction or redevelopment. For Mr. Edwards and the community he’s helped develop around Delmar Boulevard, there’s no reason to complain.

* Dallas modern, Detroit, New Orleans, Portland, Tucson (TIGER); Cincinnati, Charlotte, Dallas M-Line, Fort Worth, St. Louis (Urban Circulator)

22 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Great and remarkably conmprehensive article. I only disagree with your proposal to extend the trolley via Big Bend. Before being dismantled, streetcars once ran south via Skinker/Wydown/DeMun/Yale into the city of Maplewood which incidentally would pass by St. Mary’s Hospital. Many Wash U students use a greenway corridor located midway between Skinker and Big Bend to access the Loop, a straight shot to the Blueberry Hill restaurant. Lastly, the City of St. Louis is not in St. Louis County—it is an independent city.

  • The transition between the end of one paragraph and start of the next reads as if extending the line would entail higher frequencies which would be problematic: ” …Rather, extensions south along Big Bend Boulevard, passing by the University City Metrolink Station, the two campuses of Washington University, and reaching Richmond Heights, could be truly valuable since it would encourage transit use by students for local-area commutes and connect dense areas with a corridor not currently serviced by rapid transit.

    But the program isn’t — at least at the beginning — ready to support significant increases in the number of vehicles using the line. …

    … when a line extension with more vehicles to maintain the same frequency does not seem like it would be any special trouble.

  • poncho

    sounds sort of like a late 1970s-early 1990s era historic touristy trolley. i dont understand the historic looking high floor cars using battery power with lots of single track. and it really does manage to provide almost completely redundant service with the 4 metrolink stations in this area

    • sonja

      The trolley provides redundant service because the 97 bus runs along the same route.

      Why is it in these conversations the trolley is compared to the train? The trolley is much more like a bus – stopping at every corner, going at the speed of traffic. Could it be because trolleys and trains both have tracks? That is where their similarity ends.

  • It took a lot for people to start calling the U City Loop the Delmar Loop. Getting the Loop to develop on both sides of Skinker was a big deal for the city.

    It restores the street’s identity to actually have the streetcar loop from which it gets its name.

    The trolley also sets clear boundaries on both sides of Delmar station. The station will be in the middle of the loop, not on its far end.

    The length of Delmar Blvd between the station and Debaliviere isn’t long, but walking there is considered kind of taboo for the average person. Getting TOD in there is what makes this project exciting.

    I agree with Herbie, your article is very well put together. I will echo his point that going down Big Bend isn’t the correct phase II. The majority of the distance you describe is high-end single-family housing. It doesn’t need further development and has few destinations other than Wash U, which is served by the greenway Herbie mentioned and some very good shuttle buses.

    A lot of people think phase II of the trolley should be into Forest Park to connect all the attractions there, but that will surely be a philanthropic venture when and if it happens.

    I personally believe the most appropriate phase II is north on Skinker and along Olive. That street is pretty much all retail strip malls all the way to Chesterfield and includes our Asian community, our plant sciences cluster, and the Butterfly House. Even just a short distance to Heman Park would connect Loop residents to a large grocery store and expand the loop from a single street to more of a district. Connecting the Olive-Link to the Delmar Loop would be wonderful. As it is, ‘Chinatown’ in St. Louis is hard to get to if you don’t drive.

    • sonja

      “The length of Delmar Blvd between the station and Debaliviere isn’t long, but walking there is considered kind of taboo for the average person. Getting TOD in there is what makes this project exciting.”

      This is true, and one of the things that makes me sad about this project is that it gives in to the foolish beliefs of the people. The walk along there is boring – a lot of empty storefronts, parking lots and large faceless buildings. It is also hot in the summer, there are no street trees. There are also black people walking around on the street there. But there is nothing actually wrong with the walk. Instead of giving up on the walk, we could make it better: plant trees along Delmar, discourage street-unfriendly development, AND STOP BEING SUCH DAMN RACISTS.

  • Andrew

    I question whether this stuff should really
    a) be discussed in a transport blog
    b) be funded by the DOT

    since, as you nicely describe, the transport benefits are essentially nill (walking is almost certainly faster).

  • There is a reason that the stereotype TOD is organized around a quarter-mile radius to a transit stop … a half mile or one mile walk is an impediment to transit use.

    Indeed, “it does not provide addition transport access but it will be good for development” is direct internal contradiction … if having a train station within a mile was already an ideal level of access, then the entire one mile radius would already be receiving the full available benefit of improved transit access, and there would be no development impact from the streetcar.

  • Ocean Railroader

    What they could do with this new old based streetcar network is have one or two modern low floor wheelchair acessble light rail type trolleys run along these lines with the classic type trolley to give the users a mix of different types of trains. That way it can have a modern use and still keep to the city’s old streetcar roots.

    • But even if it was every second one, that is a 20 minute frequency, and if its every third, that is a 30 minute frequency.

      The high floor streetcars are the most puzzling part of this, since the people who gain the most benefit from extending the rail stop to the streetcar corridors are those with limited mobility or those with burdens to carry, and both are big beneficiaries of modern floor streetcars.

  • Ocean Railroader

    The mix of the two types of streetcars would be a good match uselly how I picture the old fashion high up streetcars and the ultra modern low floor streetcars. I picuture the modern ones running most of the time mainly during the week and the old fashion ones running on weekends. Also the low floor ones could be most heavly used. But I think it would be intersting to see how many commuters would go on eatch type of they had a choice which has never really been done before on any streetcar system in general.

    • John W

      They have three generations of trams running on line 2 (and probably other lines) in Vienna. Two high-floor variants (the older of these with slatted wood floors) and a more modern low-floor one. (In the space of a couple of days, I randomly ended up on ones similar to the first, second and fourth models shown in this picture).

      Don’t think there’s any particular schedule for when which type runs – if you were fussy, you’d just have to wait – they’re on 7-8 minute headways in the week, but there are overlaps with other lines. I’m presuming that they’re phasing in new stock gradually, rather than catering for nostalgists, though there is also a tourist tram that overlaps the routes.

  • J

    The problem with these types of lines is that ridership will be measured in hundreds, not thousands, making it easier for the opposition to argue against real transit improvements. I’d also wager that the hours will be limited to something like 8am-7pm.

    In this case, it would be best to run it as a historic/touristy PCC route, because it would be easier to separate it from the rest of transit discussion.

  • PeterXCV

    actually the plan is to run the trolleys 7:00 am to 1:00 am http://looptrolley.org/loop_trolley_questions.html, though i’m not sure if that will happen in the long run, though on the weekends the area is usually still hopping even late at night.

  • poncho

    If you draw a 1/2 mile radius walkshed around each of the 4 existing Metrolink stations in the Del Mar Loop/University City area, 90% of this proposed streetcar route will fall within those 4 walksheds. I dont understand it, there are so many better places in St. Louis to do a streetcar line feeding a single Metrolink station that would serve new territory.

    • What if you draw a more normal 1/4 mile radius walkshed around the four metro stations? That’d be around 22.5%?

      • poncho

        ok but its worth noting how much is redundant under the 1/2 mile radius. 1/2 mile really isnt far.

        why not do this elsewhere?

        • If 1/2 is far enough to substantially water down the property value impact of a dedicated transport corridor compared to 1/4 mile then, yes, it really is twice as far as the target.

          As far as why we don’t extend streetcar loops to turn isolated pocket of walkable TOD opportunities into extended corridors of walkable TOD opportunities in more places, that would be the massive subsidy of cars, which requires countervailing subsidies without the same legacy support.

          In some cases, an ideal design would be to allow the streetcar lane to be also used as an express busway, but that would normally entail taking roadway back from monopolization by private motor vehicles.

    • sonja

      Guys, the 97 bus runs all along Delmar. You can put your compasses way.

  • Yonah concludes, “Moreover, whether transport planners like it or not, these systems are in reality a lot more oriented towards fulfilling economic development goals than providing increased mobility.” I do not believe the two goals are at all mutually exclusive, and in fact, the sum of the two may produce something even greater. That is at least the policy objectives of the Obama administration and the HUD-DOT-EPA Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which recently awarded The Loop Trolley with $25 million.

    stlstreetcar.blogspot.com/

  • One minor correction: The City of St. Louis is NOT part of St. Louis County. It is an independent city.

    Looking forward to this project!

  • William Kellner

    Note: The City of St. Louis is an independent city. It is NOT part of St. Louis County.

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