With a new trolley tax in effect, Loop business owners hope to not lose steam

The little sticker in the front window of the Noodles & Company in the Delmar Loop says it all: "1 percent sales tax paid supports the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District."

Since November 1, Noodles & Co. and other businesses on the proposed 2.2-mile trolley route have been collecting money for the estimated $32 million project. If and when it's built, the trolley will chug down Kingsland Avenue, along Delmar Boulevard east to DeBaliviere Avenue, then head south to the Missouri History Museum via Forest Park Parkway.

Joe Edwards, who began dreaming up the project ten years ago, says the tax was approved in April, after gaining the resounding support of almost 98 percent of voters on the route who mailed in their ballots. The revenue, adds Edwards, will be used as local funds to match a federal grant.

"The state of Missouri doesn't really have the money for public transit," he explains, adding that the tax includes a 40-year sunset provision that could end sooner if fiscal goals — yet to be determined — are met.

Property owners and residents along the route are officially part of the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District, which was created by Loop business owners in May. Every business along the Loop that charges a sales tax to its patrons is subject to the increase.

Edwards estimates the sales tax is expected to net anywhere from $300,000 to $400,000 a year in revenue. As it comes in, the money will be placed in a bank account and overseen by the St. Louis accounting firm, Metrocore, until the trolley gets a green light.

Edwards, whose Delmar Loop businesses and real estate holdings include Blueberry Hill, the Pageant and the Tivoli Theatre building, serves on the transportation district's board of directors. "The trolley," he predicts, "will serve as a great prototype of how to connect neighborhoods to transit and to each other. Trolley projects are being built in various cities around the world; they spur economic development."

The sales tax, Edwards maintains, will also demonstrate to Congress that the Loop business community is serious about helping finance the project.

Already, nearly $480,000 in grant money has been secured from the Missouri Department of Transportation to purchase the line's two trolley cars. Some $120,000 in local funds was required to get the money. "I think this [federal] grant has a good chance to get money, but we have to show that we are behind this," says Edwards.

Most merchants are generally supportive of Edwards' vision, even as shoppers begin to notice the tax hike.

Dan Neenan, owner of home décor store Pizazz, views the tax as a noble cause, and envisions a project similar in scope to the streetcars that run along St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans.

Says Mary Caskanett, manager of Pam's Chicago Style Dogs & More: "At first, some of our customers were like, 'Wait a minute,' but then when we explained it to them, it was OK."

Still, there are some detractors unwilling to climb aboard, and who wonder if the tax will depress sales.

"I am opposed to it," says Mike Weiss, owner of Big Shark Bicycle Company. "I haven't seen the information for what the trolley will do for the area. I think we are a little different because we already sell a transportation alternative."

The trolley tax pushes the overall tax to more than 10 percent in his store, Weiss adds.

University City Councilwoman Lynn Ricci is also skeptical. That two-thirds of the trolley route will run in St. Louis is one thing, she says. But the fact that University City and their retail sales tax board have already committed $250,000 out of $300,000 is another.

"I still feel the City of St. Louis should be bearing a greater burden," complains Ricci, adding that she'd like to know how accurate the sales tax numbers are and how much revenue the trolley will generate when it is fully operational and moving the estimated 446,000 people annually.

Counters Edwards: "The city is contributing what it can right now."

"I sure hope their projections aren't pie in the sky," Ricci says. "I wouldn't want it to have anything but success, but I think we need to keep asking questions and I don't think there's enough accountability."

Fares will probably be similar to what Metro charges for a bus ride, says Edwards.

University City Mayor Joe Adams says he's received only a couple of complaints about the tax, and that both seemed unfounded. "I had to inform them that they weren't in the tax district," he says.

To Ricci and others, Edwards counsels patience. He says he's confident the city will commit more money when it becomes available, and that the growth of businesses along the St. Louis route will generate additional revenue.

"I'm not thrilled any time a tax is passed, but this is a really good long-term reason," he says. "I think this could be a prototype for other areas in St. Louis."

Customers, says Kelly von Plonski, owner of Subterranean Books in the Loop, do not seem to be upset over the charge so far. "If people will take the trolley here, then I'm all for it."

 
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