Diverting City Tax Dollars To Subsidize The Loop Trolley
Earlier this week, a U.S. District Court dismissed a lawsuit against the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District (TDD), clearing the way for trolley construction in Saint Louis. Like all streetcars, the Loop Trolley will have high capital costs: $43 million for a 2.2-mile route.
While the federal government is expected to pay for more than half the project through an Urban Circulator grant and New Markets Tax Credits, local residents still will have to shoulder a hefty portion. One way Saint Louis residents will pay to build the trolley is through Tax Increment Financing (TIF).
According to Loop Trolley planning documents, $3.5 million of the Loop Trolley’s capital costs will come from TIF raised from the Delmar East Loop Redevelopment area. For those unfamiliar with TIF, the government allows a developer to use the additional taxes a development might generate as a revenue stream to finance bonds to get the development started. In order to receive TIF, the government usually has to declare a property “blighted,” meaning it damages the welfare of the area due to its condition.
But how can TIF, designed to subsidize new developments, be used to fund a transportation device?
First, the city previously passed an ordinance that allows TIF money to be spent on anything that can be seen as an improvement to an area, not just subsidizing new development. Second, the city entered into a redevelopment agreement with a non-profit corporation (Loop TIF Inc.), which would receive and distribute any TIF revenue instead of granting it to an actual property development.
Of course this still leaves a major problem: who in the area is going to generate the TIF revenue in the first place? If the city designated truly depressed areas as blighted, and the future TIF revenue goes to Loop TIF Inc., there would be no upfront TIF subsidies to lure development into the blighted area.
In other words, if a TIF is genuinely needed to subsidize development that will pay for the TIF bonds by increased tax revenues, how can it possibly work if the “development” is a non-profit streetcar that won’t generate any revenue that the TIF can use?
The solution? Include areas in the TIF that were going to be developed anyway. The largest part of the TIF area includes Washington University in St. Louis’ north campus, built on land the university acquired for that purpose two years before it was included in the TIF district. That project will generate plenty of employee earnings taxes that the TIF can capture. The TIF also includes parcels that contain the Pageant theatre and commercial property that houses restaurants such as Pie Pizza. Plenty of sales taxes already are available there. Blight must truly be within the eye of the beholder.
TIF supporters claim TIF is necessary to spur economic development in areas where it would not occur otherwise. This TIF clearly does not do that, as the city purposely chose to use TIF for areas already being developed. Instead, it is, in fact, a bookkeeping tactic through which taxes that would have gone to the city are diverted to an unelected corporation to spend as it desires. And what it desires is a streetcar.