On a Roll

Joe Edwards, savior of the Loop, wants to bridge the Skinker Boulevard "moat" with a trolley. Can he get supporters on board?

If it weren't for his accomplishments, Joe Edwards would be just another daydreamer. Sitting at a table in front of the picture windows of his restaurant and bar, Blueberry Hill, Edwards is having a rather pleasant dream, this one inspired by the passing of a Bi-State bus. Instead of the acrid cloud of black exhaust belched out by a roaring engine, accompanied by the sound of screeching brakes, he contemplates the pleasant clatter of a vintage trolley, painted yellow, with wooden seats.

"See," he says, pointing to the passing bus with wistful giddiness. "That could have been a trolley. We could sit right here and just watch them all go past. It wouldn't disrupt traffic. It would just become part of the urban landscape."

Edwards, who collects miniature trolleys, is preaching the benefits of life-size trolleys in the Delmar Loop to anyone who will listen. The idea isn't new. The Loop derives its name from the trolley cars that stopped looping around the circular street by City Hall back in the 1960s. Ever since, the idea of bringing the trolleys back as a way to bring tourists in has been floated periodically. Meanwhile, Edwards ignored the funeral march others were playing for the neighborhood and opened Blueberry Hill in 1972. The family-oriented bar and grill became a cornerstone of the now-vibrant strip. Over the years, Edwards has added other attractions, including the St. Louis Walk of Fame, the renovated Tivoli Theatre and the Pageant, which opened last fall and is now one of the metro area's primary concert venues. MetroLink has reached the edge of the Loop, but riders must walk the barren blocks west to Skinker Boulevard -- which traces the city-county border -- to get to the University City entertainment district. A trolley would span the divide.

Joe Edwards
Joe Edwards

"It will literally bridge the moat known as Skinker Boulevard," Edwards says. "It will facilitate the extension of the Loop into the city of St. Louis and beyond."

It was Edwards' enthusiasm that pushed the idea further than ever before, says Susan Stauder, executive director of policy for the Bi-State Development Agency. "He is what we call a 'trolley jolly,'" she says. "He loves old streetcars and the nostalgia of them. The fact it was in the Loop only piqued his interest more. He is the best kind of cheerleader for a project like this."

Edwards cheered loud enough to get Bi-State to finance the bulk of a feasibility study in 1999 to explore the idea, and he cheered University City and St. Louis right into chipping in for the $250,000 study, which was completed last month. The study showed what most everyone suspected: It could be done. It could be done for $4 million, or it could be done for $20 million.

"The question was whether or not we could introduce a trolley corridor in the Loop," says Bob St. John, the consultant who headed the study for STV Inc. "The answer is yes."

The study explored two options -- a rubber-wheeled-trolley system, which would cost $4 million, and a fixed-track-trolley system, priced at $20 million. In both cases, five trolleys would make a two-mile trek from near City Hall in University City east to DeBaliviere Avenue, then south to the Forest Park MetroLink station. Riders would pay $1.95 per trip, but that fare wouldn't generate enough money to pay an estimated $500,000 a year in operating costs, along with debt service and other, related costs.

The obvious decision to be made now is whether to pursue the $4 million rubber-wheel project or the $20 million fixed-track system. Edwards, of course, wants the real thing. He thinks it can be done -- and fast. "It could happen in 18 months," he says with a laugh. "But I understand some people are on a different timeline."

One of those people is University City's city manager, Frank Ollendorff.

Ollendorff isn't slamming on the brakes, but he is saying, "Not so fast."

"We are way short of having enough information to decide whether to spend millions of dollars," Ollendorff says. "We need to go back and do more analysis and finish the study."

Ollendorff acknowledges a need for some kind of transportation but says he isn't sold on any particular option. "There has to be an improved transportation system linking the Delmar MetroLink stop to the U. City Loop so we can bring visitors, workers and residents," he says. "What we have isn't good enough, but exactly what form of transportation remains to be seen. We have so many questions before we can answer that one."

Ollendorff is skeptical, especially with regard to the fixed-track option -- the parking problems it might create, the electrical wires above it and, of course, the $20 million price tag.

But Edwards isn't about to give up. "Rubber tires are OK, if your sole goal is moving people from point A to point B," he says with the conviction of a Pentecostal minister. "But a fixed track is so much more than that. It will provide romance and adventure for people riding it."

Plus, he notes, more people will ride a fixed-track trolley. "People love them and will get on board just for the joy of riding," he says.

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