How Long Have Saint Louis Planners Known About Loop Trolley Cost Overruns?
In a previous post, we discussed the climbing costs of the Loop Trolley project, a 2.2 mile trolley line that will run from the St. Louis History Museum to the Delmar Loop. The project will now cost $51 million rather than the original budget of $43 million. Saint Louis County taxpayers are on the hook for the unexpected overrun. However, while the public may have been unaware of the higher cost of the Loop Trolley until last week, Saint Louis planners have likely known that the project would cost more than billed since mid-July.
The East-West Gateway Council of Governments, which is responsible for coordinating transportation spending in the Saint Louis region, releases a transportation improvement program (TIP) every year. That program contains all scheduled transportation projects receiving federal aid for the next four years. The latest TIP, approved on July 29, shows the costs of projects (including the Loop Trolley) from 2016 to 2019.
Despite the fact that the program was released months before the public was told that the Loop Trolley would be over budget, and Saint Louis County residents knowing they were on the hook for the those overruns, the latest TIP accurately puts the Loop Trolley’s cost at about $51 million. When the TIP was proposed (and commented on), the trolley’s cost was still only $44 million. But on the day the TIP was approved (July 29), the East West Gateway board approved a final additional project, sponsored by Saint Louis City, to improve “Delmar, DeBaliviere, and Loop Trolley Infrastructure.”
The funding for that project comes from a $5.4 million federal STP-S grant, requiring a $1,350,000 local match. That grant should sound familiar, because that’s precisely the grant Saint Louis County is now being asked to match, which will cover cost overruns on the Loop Trolley.
Given the timeline, it is almost certainly the case that regional planners have known about cost overruns on the Loop Trolley since mid-July. Indeed, they appear to have planned for dealing with problem by committing more federal funds (and the Saint Louis County match) to the trolley. However, they clearly did so before the county government, or county residents, had signed off on the plan. Those funds will come from county’s mass transit sales tax and could have been used to fund any number of other projects in Saint Louis County. No one should be under the illusion that Saint Louis only gets federal STP-S grants for streetcars; in the next 4 years the county is slated to receive 96 such grants.
Might planners have known about the cost overruns before trolley construction began in the spring? Was this an attempt to make to the additional funding for the Loop Trolley a fait accompli once residents found out about it? We don’t know, but it is clear that the trolley funding process has not been as transparent as Saint Louis County residents could hope.