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Graham Renz

Face-palming is defined as:

Bringing the palm of one's hand to one's face, as an expression of disbelief, shame, or exasperation.

It’s what I did when I read that the Delmar Loop Trolley, supposed Millennial-magnet and urban-revitalizer extraordinaire, is yet again over-budget and likely delayed. Joe Edwards, who’s leading the trolley effort, says he needs an additional half-million to cover signage and vehicle restoration costs, and to ensure the system can operate over “reasonable hours.” In other words, the Loop Trolley needs another bailout to help pay its regular bills—not to cover unexpected costs.

This request is not fake news, and unfortunately it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Trolley has an expensive and protracted history. Sometimes past performance really is the best indicator of future results.

First, in 2014, bids for building the vintage streetcar line came in $11 million over-budget. A second round of bids came in $3 million lower, but that still put the project—originally estimated to cost $43 million—nearly 20% over-budget. County taxpayers coughed up the extra cash to bail the trolley out, after they were told cost-overruns would be paid by a special taxing district, the loop trolley transportation development district, which levies an extra sales tax for the project.

And then there were the delays.

Before construction even began, the Federal Transit Administration, which pledged to pay for most of the trolley’s capital costs, threatened to withdraw its financial support because of a lack of engineering and design progress. Then the University City council had to extend the terms of a special building permit six months so construction would be legal when it actually began. At that time, the line was slated to open in late 2016.

But then the public was told the line would open in spring of 2017. It didn’t. Trolley proponents later said the opening date would be sometime in summer of 2017. It wasn’t. Then they said the opening date would be in August. It no longer is. And then they said it would be sometime later in the fall of 2017. I wouldn’t be surprised if the trolley actually starts moving people sometime closer to 2018.

The Loop Trolley is a textbook example of government mismanagement. Proponents over-promised and under-delivered, and ultimately, taxpayers are on the hook. Unfortunately, the trolley’s foundering was entirely predictable. Projects like it are consistently over budget and often delayed for years. Perhaps policymakers will take this as a learning opportunity. It looks like the federal government may be doing just that.

The St. Louis Business Journal reports that:

Edwards also said he has been told by Federal Transit Administration Regional Administrator Mokhtee Ahmad that if the trolley is not completed in the immediate future and does not operate successfully for the first three years, future federal funds for other St. Louis-area projects could go to other cities. [emphasis mine]

Is the federal government really so displeased with the Loop Trolley that it is questioning whether regional leaders can competently manage infrastructure projects? On top of taxpayers not being able to ride the trolley they were promised, will they miss out on other, more meaningful projects?

About the Author

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Graham Renz

Graham Renz is a policy researcher at the Show-Me Institute.