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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.

"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.

The feasibility study backs Edwards' claim, predicting 70 percent greater ridership than that for a wannabe trolley on rubber wheels. Ollendorff worries that the annual-ridership numbers predicted for either option -- 264,000 a year for rubber-wheel trolleys, 455,000 for a fixed-track system -- are inflated. "I asked what formula was used to come up with that figure, and they couldn't give me one," he says.

St. John says the ridership numbers were generated through an analysis of trolley ridership in other cities. He stands by them and says they may even be on the low side. "There are 6 [million] to 12 million visitors who go to Forest Park. If you take a scant percentile of that, it will create a substantial number of people riding the Delmar trolley," he says. "These are people who will go to the zoo, then take a trolley into the heart of the Loop and have lunch at Fitz's." St. John is quick to note that heavy promotion of a rubber-wheel system might bring in the same ridership as that for a fixed track.

From a traffic standpoint, a fixed-track trolley is a double-edged sword: It could compound traffic problems, or it could alleviate congestion. The study calls for a one-way track to be constructed in each lane of Delmar. Because the tracks can be driven over by cars, there are no plans to close the street to cars. "The trolley stops will be no different than when the buses stop," Edwards says, "except they will be a lot less smelly because there will be no exhaust."

Ollendorff argues that the study never explored the impact construction of a fixed track would have on traffic and street parking. "We cannot accept the proposal of any system that takes a lot of parking spaces," he says. "'A lot,' to me, is more than two or three spaces. If it takes up dozens of spaces, it wouldn't work." St. John says the rubber-wheeled-trolleys wouldn't affect parking at all, whereas a fixed-track system would take up at least 10 spaces. "But parking could be improved, because [riders] can park at other sites along the route and shuttle in," St. John says. Ultimately, he says, any trolley stopping every 15 minutes in rush-hour traffic will be the equivalent of four cars per hour added to the mix of Loop traffic.

Some business owners in the Loop don't think more traffic is a bad thing. Sunstar Divine, the owner of Sunstar Divine Magical Temple, a bookstore at 6277 Delmar Blvd., favors the fixed-track trolley. "I have gone to other cities and been attracted to neighborhoods because of a trolley," he says. "I know it will work here. The more traffic, the better it will be for business."

No matter what version is put in place, everyone agrees it will bring riders with wallets who will pump money into the businesses along Delmar and help revitalize the Loop, especially the city blocks east of the Skinker "moat."

That's good news for M.K. Stallings, a joint owner of Legacy Books, located at 6172 Delmar Blvd., east of Skinker. Stallings opened the bookstore in March 2000, seven months before the Pageant opened. The paltry foot traffic coming into his store consists of pedestrians walking to or from the MetroLink station and concertgoers from the Pageant who happen to stop by. "There is a definite line of demarcation," Stallings says. "This area for so long has been known as an underdeveloped part of the city with no vital businesses. People have a hard time envisioning anything else. They don't walk past here to seek a business out. A trolley would change that by bringing them right past so they can see what is available."

Even as the debate over rubber tires or fixed track brews, no consensus exists on where to get the money, although the possibilities are numerous.

Edwards, who built Blueberry Hill and the Pageant and renovated the Tivoli Theatre, is used to rolling up his sleeves and dipping into his own pocket to get things done. The trolley, on the other hand, needs the consensus and cooperation of several neighborhoods, two cities and public agencies. This project will require a shovel and a compass to navigate a patchwork of private tax credits, state and federal grants and, possibly, a sales tax.

Stauder says Bi-State is not in a financial position to provide substantial funding to the project. Edwards says the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council is reviewing the plan and could offer some assistance. Missouri Gov. Bob Holden's transportation bill, if it passes, would most certainly help. The bill calls for a $7 billion increase in transportation funding over the next 10 years through the largest tax increase in Missouri history. The money would go not only toward maintaining and repairing Missouri's aging roads and highways but toward new projects, such as MetroLink expansion.

There is always the possibility that private investors can be lured with such a project. In Texas, Dallas and Austin have trolley systems that are privately funded and integrated with public-transportation systems. Private developers can be subsidized through tax credits and tax-increment-financing districts.

But before the discussion of money can go forward, a consensus must exist among community leaders and business owners. "Before we can even talk about funding, there is more preliminary work needed on getting a community consensus," Stauder says. "I haven't heard anyone really opposed to the idea of a rubber-tire trolley, but there are many who favor a fixed track. Once an agreement is reached on what the community wants done, then we will talk about funding."

Edwards is ever the optimist. "There is a lot of support already," he says. "Ninety-five percent of everyone I talk to jumps aboard. The other five percent aren't against it -- they are just not sure. It doesn't take long to convince them."

Looking over a colorful poster of trolleys on his office wall, Edwards gets the kid-in-a-candy-store look. "America is in love with rails," he says. "It is just fun to ride vintage trolleys. It is a relaxed ride that makes you feel a connection with the past."

For a moment he hears the click and clatter of the track, running as steadily as his vision. "We could start with a track in the Loop," he says. "But we don't have to stop there -- we can extend to other parts of the city."

Edwards' enthusiasm is infectious. "The Loop was built by people who dreamed bigger than their wallets," says Jay Brandt, owner of Brandt's Market & Café in the Loop. "I think we are closer than we have ever been. I just hope we can get this done before I retire."

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