Trolley is Starting Full-Track Testing. But Actually Operating? That Takes Money

Nov 20, 2017 at 6:22 am
Trolley is Starting Full-Track Testing. But Actually Operating? That Takes Money
Photo by Sarah Fenske.
Look both ways before crossing Delmar, everybody: the Loop trolley, which has a special talent for being extra expensive and extra behind schedule, is hitting the tracks for "System Integrated Testing" (SIT) starting today and lasting until mid-January.

This process is meant to access the system as a whole, with "special attention paid to powered interface with platforms, signaled intersections, switch points and safety mechanisms," according to a press release from the Loop Trolley Company. During this time, the trolley cars will be active along the entire 2.2 mile trolley alignment, which spans from the Delmar/Kingsland stop in University City to the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. Testing will mostly take place during the early morning because of its stop-and-inspect nature, though mid-morning and daytime runs are anticipated as well, according to the Loop Trolley Company.

But while this may seem like a promising step in finally getting the trolley into operation, it's not all smooth sailing from here. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Loop Trolley Co. President Les Sterman told key public officials in an October 19 letter that the trolley wouldn't start operations unless it gets an additional $500,000 to cover initial operating deficits and startup costs.

In the letter, Sterman said the nonprofit firm would be insolvent by January due to delays in construction, testing and obtaining approval from state and federal regulators, the Post-Dispatch reports. Even when regulators give the approval to begin service, it would be "irresponsible" to do so with the additional funds, Sterman wrote.

According to the Post-Dispatch, a particular issue Sterman noted in the letter is how trolley managers and employees were hired months ago in anticipation of the line's starting operations. Delays have prevented any farebox or sales tax money from accumulating to help pay the employees' salaries.

The paper points out that Joe Edwards, the godfather of the Loop and face of the trolley project, asked county officials for the $500,000 back in the summer. But he never said it could make or break the line's launch.

Recipients of the letter included Edwards, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, University City Mayor Shelley Welsch and John Nations, president and CEO of the Bi-State Development Agency.

As of Friday, Sterman told the Post-Dispatch that he hadn't received a reply to the letter but felt "pretty confident this is going to get worked out." In the letter, he claimed that trolley advocates are still confident about the line's long-term financial sustainability, with funds solely coming from ads, private donations, the special local sales tax in the trolley area and passenger fares.

In the meantime, sights are set on SIT testing. In a prepared statement, Loop Trolley Company executive director Kevin Barbeau called it "an incredibly exciting step for the project," citing how it will certify the line's safety as well as show off the restored trolley vehicles regularly. 

“Just seeing them out on the street under their own power, pulling into Forest Park or moving along Delmar, really will drive home the benefits and potential of the entire project," Barbeau stated.

We're not sure "exciting" is the word we'd use for it, but we can agree with the Loop Trolley Company on one thing — you need to be careful with your vehicle when it comes to this trolley business. (Yes, we speak from experience; our RFT colleague and his moped fell victim to the tracks back in summer 2016.)

The trolley will share the road with cars like yours in the stretch of track west of the Des Peres Bridge on Delmar and "regularly interact" with them at intersections and driveways on DeBaliviere and east of the Des Peres Bridge on Delmar. The Loop Trolley Company emphasizes that vehicles in these areas must park against the curb and totally inside the striped parking lane, since the trolley can't move over to skirt anything in its way.

While the company has been testing the cars for the last two months, so far the trolley's powered movement has only been in the "protected portion" of the rail. That special section runs on Delmar between DeBaliviere Avenue and the Wabash Station at Delmar/Des Peres, as well as on DeBaliviere between Delmar and Forest Park Parkway.

The first round of Loop Trolley operators clocked about 40 hours of training in the "protected portion" of track; more certification will take place simultaneously with the SIT process. A second class of operators will start training in the new year.

As for when the trolley is going to start taking passengers, the date was originally meant to be mid-2016. We are now approximately at the point we were supposed to be last March, when we told St. Louis to "get ready," since System Integrated Testing was supposedly about to start. Edwards has said that he now hopes the trolley could start up by mid-January or mid February — but the official start date, of course, is dependent on money.

So, yes, the trolley is hitting the tracks. But for how long? That will all depend on some vital dollar signs.