Trolley Follies

In the race to return streetcars to St. Louis, Lacy Clay and Joe Edwards chart two very different courses

"It's a lot more efficient and a lot less expensive, and these are taxpayers' dollars," says Clay. "When you start talking about laying track, it becomes a lot more expensive."

Metro's Jones agrees, saying that laying track downtown "was never a consideration."

"[With] Joe Edwards' plan, you reduce lanes of traffic," continues Clay, referring to the sidewalk expansion east of Skinker Boulevard on Delmar. "I don't think it works on Delmar, man. They've already taken up two lanes, and now you're talking about a trolley? Don't you think that's an inconvenience to motorists? I mentioned rubber tires to Joe a couple years ago, and he wasn't buying it. So I'm not buying his plan."

U.S. Representative William "Lacy" Clay Jr. hopes St. 
Louisans will be clanging trolley bells once again.
Craig LaRotonda
U.S. Representative William "Lacy" Clay Jr. hopes St. Louisans will be clanging trolley bells once again.

Nonsense, argues Citizens for Modern Transit's Shrout, who also acts as secretary and treasurer for Edwards' private Loop Trolley Company.

"One thing I feel you need in urban environments is narrower streets and slower traffic," counters Shrout. "Everyone complains about the Loop being slow, but look at all the things going on down there. It kind of goes hand-in-glove. Traffic's slowed down, people stop, park their cars. If you want to kill off a vibrant neighborhood, widen streets and speed up traffic."

Edwards, who sits on the region's Transportation and Tourism Task Force, is not opposed to the downtown trolley project but was taken aback when told of Clay's critical take on his plan.

"I'm astounded at that response," says Edwards. "I met with Lacy Clay twice at length a couple years ago. He said he loved the idea, was totally behind it, and said he'd do anything he could to help. I guess Lacy has not looked at the Loop trolley plan in a while. These tracks will just be in the traffic lanes. It does not eliminate any lanes of traffic. If anything, it would help mitigate congestion because people could park anywhere on the route and hop on the trolley. It's a huge positive for economic stability.

"It costs a lot more to build the fixed-track system in the beginning, but if money can be found for it, operating costs are almost identical to a rubber-tire system," Edwards continues. "But ridership projections are 70 percent greater with fixed track. People will know they can invest in housing and not have a car. They know it's permanent. It's quiet and environmentally sound. St. Louis needs to build things right."

Clay touts New Orleans as an example of successful rubber-tire trolley systems. But New Orleans doesn't have a rubber-tire system; the city employs an elaborate system identical to what Edwards envisions for the Loop. In fact, New Orleanians view the faux trolleys with chuckling disdain, according to Alan Drake, a New Orleans engineer and lead author of "New Orleans: Not Your Same Old Streetcar," a paper that will be presented at a national transportation conference in June.

"In my opinion, they're an inferior compromise between bus and trolley," Drake says of Clay's proposed rubber-tired rigs. "They're not a good bus, and they're certainly not a good streetcar. They're fake, and everybody who gets on 'em knows they're fake."

Others point out that while trolleys are generally believed to be a nice piece of any thriving district's transportation pie, rolling them around moribund districts such as downtown St. Louis is anything but a renaissance trigger.

"I've never known trolleys to be a major contributing factor to reviving a downtown area," says Ray Mundy, a professor of transportation studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "It's not going to be a golden bullet that changes behavior."

New Orleans' Drake is also careful to mention two more holistic-minded angles in the rail-versus-rubber debate: system durability and the intended use of public roadways.

"Buses last an average of twelve years -- our streetcars should last centuries," he says, contrasting Clay's proposed system with New Orleans', the oldest and most extensive streetcar network in the country. "Public streets are intended to transport people and goods, not to transport cars and trucks. And automobiles are not the most efficient means to do so. There are situations where streetcars are not appropriate, but there are many, many more where they are."

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