Trolley Follies

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

Apr 7, 2004 at 4:00 am
Armed with the promise of a $250,000 federal appropriation, U.S. Representative William "Lacy" Clay Jr. confidently strode to the front of a small public assemblage at Kiener Plaza last month and boldly declared that trolleys will return to River City streets for the first time since 1966.

As he stood beside Metro chief executive officer Larry Salci and St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission president Carole Moody, the north St. Louis Democrat proclaimed that his trolleys will "prime the pump on yet another urban project that will add to the growing vitality and opportunity for downtown St. Louis -- the true heartbeat of the region."

Clay's vision is to run a half-dozen trolleys from one downtown dead zone to another. The cars, according to Clay's plan, will run from St. Louis Centre and the Convention Center to Union Station, making stops at key points in between, such as Washington Avenue and major downtown hotels.

Delmar Loop developer Joe Edwards has a vision for transit as well, but it's much different: a privately operated, 2.2-mile, fixed-track vintage trolley system that would run eastbound from University City City Hall, down Delmar Boulevard, and then south on DeBaliviere Avenue to the Missouri History Museum.

Clay gives the impression that his downtown rubber-tired trolleys are all but ready to roll. But serious questions have been raised as to whether his system will ever be built -- or whether one can even call these contraptions trolleys.

"It's not a real trolley, but a bus made out of wood with some brass and bells," says Citizens for Modern Transit's Tom Shrout, who sits on the region's Transportation and Tourism Task Force, which Metro's press release lists as a partner on Clay's trolley project.

Metro spokeswoman Adella Jones speculates that the $250,000 will get her embattled, cash-strapped mass-transit agency, which has been charged with planning and operating the trolleys (in addition to its current duties of operating area buses and MetroLink cars), no further than the planning phase. One rubber-tired trolley alone, says Jones, costs $280,000 -- and that doesn't include operating costs.

Jones says the appropriation is inadequate -- the project's total budget is $2.2 million -- and "that's why the congressman put in for another $2 million. If we don't get that appropriation, it doesn't look good."

Of course, the whole issue could be moot if President Bush follows through with his threat to veto a $275 billion highway and mass-transit bill, an omnibus piece of legislation littered with more than 3,000 pet projects, including $15 million to build a road to a gold mine in Alaska and $3.5 million for horse trails in Virginia. By contrast, Clay's piece of transit pork looks mighty small.

The congressman says he's feeling pretty good about securing the money in the next round of funding later this year, even though he asked for $2 million this past go-round and came up with a mere one-eighth of the loot. When pressed by the Riverfront Times to provide a tangible reason for such optimism, Clay can offer no explanation other than having a good gut feeling.

If the appropriation is scaled back or axed altogether from the massive transportation package, Metro and various downtown booster organizations plan on soliciting contributions from hotels and other businesses to help fund the system. Renaissance Grand owner Ron Silverman, as well as two other downtown hotel owners -- the Adam's Mark's Fred Kummer and the Sheraton's Don Breckenridge -- say that's news to them.

"I probably know about as much about it as you do from reading the newspaper," says Silverman. "Nobody has approached us as a funding source, but we'd certainly be open to listening."

While Clay may see the $250,000 as the start of something big, critics say the $2.2 million project -- and the tiny appropriation to seed it -- might not be worth all the legislative wrangling.

"You're committed to a long-term spending plan that might not be in the best interests of the city," says Robert Cropf, director of the public administration program at Saint Louis University's College of Public Service. "If there's a promise down the road that money is coming, that'd be one thing, but that's not the case here. What you're doing is putting the city on the line for a project that's going to cost a lot of money."

St. Louis' streets once teemed with vintage, fixed-track, streetcar-style trolleys, the first of which ran in 1859. The city's trolley heyday lasted from the 1880s into the 1940s, with its official death coming in 1966.

"The line that ran on Broadway closed down because they were building Highway 70," says local transit historian Dave Young. "The mayor at the time [Raymond R. Tucker] didn't want any more streetcars because he said the streets were too narrow."

St. Louis' streetcars, like those of so many superhighway-obsessed municipalities, were then sold off to buyers in San Francisco, Cleveland and Mexico -- and urban planners across the country have since regretted the short-sighted maneuver. But now vintage trolleys are making a comeback of sorts in planning-and-development circles in a number of large American cities.

Joe Edwards' trolley system would cost $32 million, according to a four-year-old Metro feasibility study. At face value, that would appear to make Clay's proposed gambit a far better investment -- a notion that Clay proudly trumpets.

"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."

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."