What I Would Like to See from the Resurrected Trolley
The Bi-State Development Agency has granted the Loop Trolley a new lease on life. Given the trolley’s poor track record, it’s going to be a steep uphill climb for Bi-State to salvage anything worthwhile from this project.
The biggest problem with the Loop Trolley is that nobody wants to ride it. During its 13 months of operation, ridership was under 10 percent of expectations, which led to equally depressing revenue shortfalls. Time and again, trolley management turned to taxpayers to fill its budget gaps, ultimately pouring $51 million of other people’s money into the project. One of those funders, the Federal Transit Administration, issued an ultimatum to the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District (LTTDD): either restart the trolley or pay back $37 million in federal grants.
Show-Me Institute analysts have been issuing warnings about a taxpayer-funded trolley with minimal demand for more than a decade, so this is not your average “I told you so.” But now that Bi-State has decided to clean up the Loop Trolley’s mess, let’s hope it has a good plan.
Bi-State should do what it can to reduce the overall taxpayer burden. As of now, trolley funding will come solely from the LTTDD’s sales tax on loop shoppers, which will not be enough to run the trolley for long. One way to potentially reduce taxpayers’ burden is to sell advertisement spots on the trolley. (Yes, even park bench personal injury lawyers—somebody needs to represent the owners of the cars the trolley kept managing to hit last time).
Bi-State can also lessen taxpayer burden by charging passengers to ride the trolley. Currently, Bi-State is considering letting passengers ride for free. If the thinking is that this revenue would be too small to make a difference, Bi-State should remember that people voluntarily paying to ride the trolley is better than reaching into the pockets of people who don’t ride the trolley. Charging fares from the start would be better, but if Bi-State decides not to do that, it should at least try to boost ridership to the point of charging fares. Whether that’s seasonally themed rides, reaching out to business and marketing students at Wash U for consulting, or any other novel idea, boosting ridership to the point of charging for fares should be the goal.
The trolley is coming back whether we like it or not. Let’s hope Bi-State finds a way to get taxpayers off the hook.