Hello trolley: Grant to fund St. Louis streetcar

Thursday, August 12, 2010 | 9:39 a.m. CDT; updated 10:22 a.m. CDT, Thursday, August 12, 2010

ST. LOUIS — Streetcars are making a comeback across the country, including St. Louis, where a $25 million federal grant will cover more than half the projected construction cost of a trolley running from Forest Park to the Delmar Loop.

The Gateway City is one of several cities planning to restore or extend streetcar lines, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Thursday. Memphis, Tenn., Little Rock, Ark., and New Orleans are among the others.

The trolleys are popular among both tourists and residents, though some question whether the cost is worth it.

The $25 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant was announced last month — at the same time as trolley grants were announced for Cincinnati, Charlotte, N.C., and two for the Dallas-Forth Worth area. The total project cost is $44 million. Supporters are hopeful the St. Louis trolley could be up and running by early 2012.

"Streetcars are making a comeback because cities across America are recognizing that they can restore economic development downtown — giving citizens the choice to move between home, shopping and entertainment without ever looking for a parking space," said Peter Rogoff, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration.

A four-mile streetcar system in Portland, Ore., which connects Portland State University and Northwest Portland, is often held up as the model. The line that opened nine years ago passes through what once was a decaying industrial area. Now called the Pearl District, the area has become a lively stretch of shops, restaurants, bars and condos.

Some Loop merchants worried about loss of parking. John Racanelli, owner of the Market Pub House, said a trolley-like bus could be better than a train.

"My biggest concern is tearing up the streets to put in tracks," he said. "Why not just put the trolley on wheels?"

But Mike Hobbs, owner of the Melting Pot, said the trolley "is going to make us a little San Francisco."

"I just hope we have enough people for the density to ride it," he said. "If we don't get the ridership we're looking for, then we've got some issues."

The Loop Trolley would cover 2.2 miles and run between the western end of the Delmar Loop in University City and the Missouri History Museum at Forest Park. Plans call for nine stops.

Joe Edwards, owner of the Pageant concert hall, Blueberry Hill restaurant and other Loop properties, has been promoting the idea of a trolley since the late 1990s.

"It's going to mean a lot for St. Louis financially as far as conventions coming here," he said. "All other things being equal, the trolley could tip the decision in our favor."

Edwards hopes construction can begin by late 2011 and be completed in as little as six months. The historic-looking trolleys would be modern, electrically powered streetcars, each costing $1 million to $1.5 million and capable of running on batteries or powered by overhead lines.

Now, attention turns to getting the remaining $19 million to fund the project. Edwards said funding sources could include tax credits, corporate support and donations from philanthropists.

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