New Year, Same Problems with the Loop Trolley
The Loop Trolley is causing trouble for Saint Louis area officials again. The problem this time is possibly having to repay the federal government for all the federal money it took to build the trolley.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is threatening to claw back the $37 million in grant money it gave to get the Loop Trolley up and (briefly) running. According to the FTA, trolley officials must submit a plan by February 1 to restart the trolley by June 1, and the plan must include at least three cars running four days per week.
According to the FTA’s regional director, any potential litigation over the money the FTA wants back would involve the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District (LTTDD) and the East West Gateway Council of Governments. This is because while most federal money the LTTDD received from the federal government came directly from the FTA, some also came via grants distributed by the East West Gateway.
Saint Louis area officials are concerned that failing to get the Loop Trolley running again would make it harder for the Saint Louis region to receive future federal transportation grants.
So what should be done about the trolley?
At this point, the most sensible decision seems to be whichever would cost taxpayers less—either running the trolley to satisfy the FTA’s conditions or paying back the $37 million.
However, it’s not clear how many years the trolley would have to operate to satisfy the FTA’s terms. According to a letter from the FTA’s regional director to the Saint Louis City mayor, grant recipients must operate the project throughout the useful life of the property, which the regional director specified as between 12 and 40 years in the trolley’s case. But with the Loop Trolley’s operating budget of slightly over $1 million to run only two vehicles (and add in any additional costs from maintenance and indirect costs to Loop businesses), there are a number of variables that make it difficult to accurately calculate whether operating the trolley will cost less than paying back the grant.
Assuming the variables can be nailed down, it is possible to do the math and see which option is better for taxpayers. The problem is that even if, by the numbers, running the trolley is the less expensive option, that does not mean it actually will be. Any effort to restart the trolley would need to avoid the blunders that dogged the construction and past operation of the trolley in the first place.
If only the federal government guarded its (our) money this closely all the time.