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Bi-State CEO given OK to explore Loop Trolley takeover

There's a new plan that could help the trolley reopen after it shuts down on Dec. 29

ST. LOUIS BUSINESS JOURNAL — The board of Bi-State Development on Tuesday voted to give its CEO authority to negotiate a possible takeover of the financially troubled Loop Trolley streetcar, scheduled to shut down this month. 

CEO Taulby Roach said a preliminary plan created by Bi-State shows that the transit agency could operate the trolley on a break-even basis for four years, utilizing grants from the Federal Transit Administration. Then, he said, it’s possible the trolley could require funding from another source, including Bi-State. It’s currently funded, in part, by a taxing district in the Delmar Loop, which would continue to contribute dollars to the trolley’s operations.

A formal plan for Bi-State to operate the trolley could be presented to the board in January or February, Roach said. The board would have to approve a takeover of operations and transfer of transit assets.

RELATED: The Loop Trolley will shut down at the end of this year

The Bi-State plan assumes an annual trolley budget of $1.08 million. The taxing district collects more than $800,000 annually. The trolley has attracted nowhere near the fare revenue its preliminary budgets assumed, contributing to its woes.

Roach has already gotten preliminary permission from the FTA to receive new funds for the next four years in order to restart and re-imagine the Loop Trolley.

During those four years, he wants to expand service to longer hours, seven days a week so that riders know to expect the trolley coming down the tracks.

He'd also make it part of the Metro Transit family.

"For instance, you could transfer from the Metrolink, onto the trolley and then to a bus. So it makes sense that we would turn it into a transit asset," Roach told 5 On Your Side

Bi-State operates the St. Louis region's Metro bus and light rail transit service. Roach said that if the agency were to take over the trolley, he would look to make it more than a tourist attraction by getting a third streetcar into operation, among other things.

The Loop Trolley Co., operator of the 2.2-mile system, which runs from the Delmar Boulevard entertainment district to Forest Park, in October said it needed another $200,000 in public funds to keep the system in operation through November. It eventually received a $90,000 loan from the taxing district that created it that will keep it operating through Dec. 29.

Though city and county officials were unwilling to invest more money in the system, officials have also expressed concern that it's failure, after less than a year in operation, could sour the federal government's impression of the St. Louis region as a source for future transportation funding. Federal funds account for $33.9 million of the $52 million it cost to develop the Loop Trolley. 

Roach continued to emphasized that concern Tuesday, though Cox argued that the feds could decide to withhold funding for many reasons — including well-known MetroLink security problems.

"Remember that the federal government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in St. Louis over several decades," Roach said. "So they're one of our best partners. And what we want to do is compete for those dollars in the future. Reputation is important in trying to have the structural capacity to finish projects."

If his board approves, Roach says he understands he's not just inheriting a project that's never turned a profit, it's one that has become a punching bag for politicians and a punch line on Twitter.

He thinks he can change that, as long as the Trolley gets back on track.

"I need butts in seats," says Roach. "I want to do new and innovative things and try to look at how we can look at these assets differently in a modern version of where our city is."

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