» 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)