St. Louis has spent $51 million building a 2.1-mile streetcar line that may never run because the company hired to operate it is almost out of money. In 2015, St. Louis County gave $3 million to the Loop Trolley Company, which the company used to hire managers, drivers, and other employees to run the trolleys that were supposed to begin operation in spring, 2016.
However, the start of operations has been repeatedly delayed, most recently to mid-winter, 2018. Now the trolley company says it will be out of money before it can start, and it is demanding another $500,000 before a single streetcar turns a wheel in revenue service.
At the other end of the state, the Kansas City streetcar was supposed to have been a great success, carrying an average of 5,843 trips per day, but that’s because it is free. The Loop Trolley Company expects to charge $2 per two-hour period. That’s in the range of the Little Rock streetcar, which carried 153 trips per weekday in 2016, or the Tampa streetcar, which carried 645 trips per weekday. These two lines each cost taxpayers more than a million dollars a year to operate.
Streetcar backers naturally argue that the trolley will stimulate economic development. Yet any such claims must be tempered by the fact that the city is giving tens of millions of dollars in tax-increment financed subsidies to developers along the route. These projects are going up whether or not the streetcar ever begins operation, yet streetcar advocates will no doubt claim credit without mentioning the developer subsidies.
Politicians have a habit of throwing good money after bad, so there is little doubt that St. Louis will cave in to Loop Trolley Company’s demands. But it is nice to imagine that we could live in a world where common sense prevailed over stupidity.