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Forty Year Anniversary of Last St. Louis Streetcar

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the last streetcar to operate in regular service in St. Louis. On May 21, 1966 the #15 Hodiamont line ceased operations. From Streets & Streetcars of St. Louis by Andrew D. Young:

“This line opened in 1875 as a narrow-guage steam railroad running northwest on right-of-way from 4000 Enright through Wellston to Florissant.”

For 91 years this line had numerous technical changes but continued to serve the needs to those residents along the line. Many forces following WWII took their toll on streetcar systems: old equipment, GM’s interest in selling buses, road paving & widening projects, bridge replacement projects, and increasing suburban sprawl. While impossible to prove my theory, I believe that had St. Louis updated its streetcar system rather than shutting it down we would not have lost the population we have over these last 40 years. Of course, this assumes many other factors such as something to control sprawl and creative ways to keep lines running while bridges were replaced.

MetroLink, everyone keeps reminding me, is a regional system. While this is nice for everyone far away from the core it does little to benefit me in the core. I want a modern transit system to once again serve the City of St. Louis and it’s inner ring of suburbs. We are a city and we should not be dependent up our cars or typical bus service.

Of course it always come back to money. A regional system is being pushed because St. Louis County can potentially get the money from voters to help fun more of the system. I’m increasingly of the mindset we need to find a way in the city to pay for a localized system of new modern streetcars. I think I’d even settle for one of the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) lines as long as the vehicle that was selected was one that looked more like a rail transit vehicle than a bus.

We need both a regional and core system. The regional system cannot do work of a localized system nor can a local system do the job a regional system is expected to do. Light rail does a great job on the regional level but standard 40ft buses fall short at the local level. I’d like to see the light rail system remain in as much rail right-of-way as possible because that is where it does well. Streetscars, by contrast, are meant for streets.

Forty years is simply too long to have gone without a streetcar running down a city street. Maybe we’ll have enough vision to undo past wrongs.

– Steve


Currently there are "20 comments" on this Article:

  1. Joe Frank says:

    Is there any news on the status of the Loop Trolley, I wonder? Sure, it’s kind of a silly project, and would be geared mainly to tourists. But maybe if it is successful, people would start to change their mindset.

    Meanwhile, Cross County MetroLink will of course serve numerous inner-ring suburbs that once had streetcar service – indeed, the Forest Park Parkway corridor was formely part of the University car line. Small buses will provide much faster access from downtown to Kirkwood and Webster – themselves historic railroad suburbs – via Shrewsbury MetroLink station.

    Also, the North-South Study currently underway focuses exclusively on the City of St. Louis, because of the tax credits paying for it.

    What do you suppose STL city would be like today if the proposed elevated-railway lines had been built back in the 1920s downtown?

  2. Doug Duckworth says:

    A coworker of mine is on some city council/group in U City, and she says the trolly project is either being voted on soon, or will be in the near future.

    I will ask her again, but generally she said it has a lot of support, and will be done.

  3. travis reems says:

    A streetcar system in the City would most likely be used by tourists, as most non-drivers use the Metro bus system. It would be interesting to study whether a system would work in areas of heavy tourism, such as a Laclede’s Landing/Washington Ave/Ball Park loop, a CWE loop, a Soulard Loop, and maybe even a Towergrove/S. Grand loop. Beyond these local loops, I too would like to see a self-sustaining light rail transit system within the City, like in other major cities, such as Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. This would lessen our dependence on busses and cars, lowering traffic and emissions.

  4. Paul Dever says:

    I was talking to a man over the weekend who fondly remembered St. Louis’ streetcars. He used to pass through the Wellston hub regularly. He told me that St. Louis’ old streetcars were shipped off to San Francisco . . .

  5. Doug Duckworth says:

    I think a streetcar system would be used by many.

    For example, a streetcar running from Grand S Grand to Grand Center would allow people to eat dinner, and then take the streetcar to a performance in Grand Center. If a streetcar stop is on Grand, above the metro, then indviduals could take the bus from their home, or park n ride, to the Grand Station as well.

    A streetcar system could add another layer of transport which would further remove the need for a car, and I do not believe tourists would be the only riders.

  6. Jim Zavist says:


    You and I disagree on bringing back streetcars in St. Louis. As you point out, there are many reasons why they disappeared after WW II. Many of those reasons remain valid today. Combine that with free parking (most places) and the ready availability of inexpensive personal transportation (everything from bicycles to your beloved scooters to a beater like a 1998 Chevy Cavalier for $800), and it confirms the need to for the arguments for fixed-route public transit to change and evolve. There are fewer and fewer truly transit-dependent riders out there. Most people who do have other choices choose to ride public transit either because itÂ’s less expensive [to save money on gas and/or parking] or because itÂ’s more convenient than fighting rush-hour traffic. (Admittedly, there are some who choose public transit for environmental or social reasons, but theyÂ’re a much smaller part of the choice group than the frugal or the traffic-phobic.)

    I agree that we need to both make transit more attractive to choice riders and to make it work as well as it can for transit-dependent riders. Equally importantly, we need to develop a consistent funding (tax) source to fund public transit, and I have serious doubts about St. Louis CityÂ’s ability to do something like that on its own. The brutal reality remains that thereÂ’s a lot more sales tax revenues being generated outside the city than within. To dismiss the CountyÂ’s contribution, while simplistic politically, misses the bigger picture. St. Louis City already gets more transit service relative to its tax contributions than the County gets for theirs. For city dwellers like you and me, thatÂ’s a good thing. What really needs to happen, especially in suburban areas, is to move transit into the Twenty-First Century, and not to focus on the nostalgia of transit from the Nineteenth Century.

    Demand-responsive (Call-and-ride) service is a type of service that’s only used here to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act’s requirements for service to people with mobility impairments. In other parts of the country, it’s been used successfully to selectively replace underused fixed-route service in suburban areas. While its per-rider cost is typically higher than the per-rider cost of typical fixed-route services, it does make sense in areas where several fixed routes can be replaced by a single call-and-ride vehicle. It offers the “luxury” of door-to-door service to those few riders who even think about using transit in more-affluent areas, and by doing so, gives voters in those areas a reason to support transit funding. You gotta look at the bigger picture – if you spend more per rider but less overall, you’re coming out ahead.

    The same logic needs to be applied to streetcars. Will spending the additional money (over traditional buses) actually net a similar increase in riders? Or would spending less money to buy more (smaller?) buses and to fund additional operators have a better end result? If the frequency [wait between buses] is cut in half, will you see more riders? Or will you see more riders because the vehicle has steel wheels and electric power instead of rubber tires and diesel power?

    Bottom line, public transit is more about moving people and less about a specific technology. A vehicle is a tool, and to be successful, you need to pick the right tool to do the job. Public transit also faces the classic “chicken or the egg” conundrum. More-frequent service generally results in more riders, yet it takes more riders to justify more service. Adding unique vehicles helps a little, whether they’re streetcars or trolley buses, and clean vehicles, convenient and safe stops and friendly operators are all pluses as well, but it’s frequent service that is the most effective strategy in attracting new riders. Plus, it doesn’t take long for the “new” to wear off and then it’s just another Metro service. People simply don’t like to wait (or plan ahead), and that’s why most people willingly spend twice as much to drive themselves. It may seem irrational from an economic standpoint, but as they say, time is money!

    One situation where I can see supporting the return of streetcars is when they’d be used in conjunction with a redevelopment that significantly increases density and reduces free parking. The other situation would be creating a free trolley loop(s) serving downtown with frequent service. This would allow a lot of the existing local bus service to be removed from a congested area (and used more-effectively outside of downtown) and would better serve both the commercial areas and the entertainment/tourist areas there. Simply replacing part of an existing, well-performing bus route with a different vehicle (a streetcar) makes a lot less sense – if it ain’t broke, don’t “fix” it! Still, I appreciate your passion, and we both want to see public transit become a more-viable alternative for moving people in the city . . .

  7. Jeff says:

    I agree with Doug. I live in the CWE, and I love that I can walk everywhere in my neighborhood… it was a major selling point. However, there are a ton of other cool neighborhoods in St. Louis that I like to go out in. When I want to go to South Grand or Soulard, I drive. If there were streecars branching off from the metrolink stops to South Grand and SOulard, I would, without question, use them.

    I know there are currently bus routes that cover it, but, like it or not, I’m not likely to ride the bus anytime soon. Call me a product of growing up in the burbs in the 80’s and 90’s, but the busses frighten me. Not the people that ride them, but my lack of knowledge as to routes, times, and other silly little details like that. If I walked to the nearest bus stop, and tried to get to Soulard, I know I would fail. There are no maps, and frankly, there are TOO many lines and stops for anyone to be expected to have a working knowledge of the entire sytem (Other than knowing the line they need to get to work). There is a psycholgical barrier that arises when you take public transport off a physical, fixed line.

  8. rob says:

    I don’t think the city owned the streetcar system. I think there were actually a few different independent operators that contracted with the city and county. A company called National City Lines made up of GM, Firestone, and Standard Oil actually bought up St. Louis’ streetcar operators along with those of Milwaukee, Cincinatti, and some other cities, and then replaced them with a bus system that used buses made by GM, riding on Firestone tires, and with Standard Oil.

    I think they actually lost some kind of an anti-trust suit related to it and had to pay some hefty fines sometime in the 60s. Kind of tangential to the original post but interesting.

  9. Brian says:

    ^ if you consider “hefty” a few hundred dollars in court costs, then yes.

    It is because of this that I think it sould be the resposibilty of GM, Firestone, etc to pat the cost of restoring evey mile of track and every car they removed in our city and others. not one dime of taxpayer or other public funds should be used. They probably autta operate them free to the public for every year we’ve been deprived of the system as well.

    It’s astounding what this city lost. My grandfather still has a streetcar schedule in his dresser. I looked it over last time I visited and lo and behold – like other cities I’ve visited with “real” public transportation I found that I could have easily traveled to pretty much anywhere in the city I wanted at almost any time of the day, sans very late nights.

  10. Sam says:

    I am very much in favor of adding streetcars in the city. If we did, I would get rid of my car and go solely to public transport. Streetcars that run on electricity or much more viable for our current ecological situation, and would be better for long term economics. Fixed locations can allow neighborhood centers to grow and thrive. As it stands now, we don’t have a fixed system, and the economics don’t follow. The current MetroLink line services the already built environment of the city. The CWE, Downtown…if you could put a line going along Chouteau, how would that affect the businesses that reside there. A Bus route can change, a streetcar line cannot.

    The city needs more viable options for public transport to support the future growth, if we hope to endure any. With the city coming up the way it has in recent years, we have an opportunity to become a very viable urban environment that would become attractive to all sorts of people, giving them a cheaper alternative to NY, Chicago, DC without sacrificing urban living.

  11. Jeff says:

    I like the nestalgia of street cars and look forward to the Loop Trolley. However I agree that I would rather have smaller busses more frequently hitting the various bus stops. It would be nice to know that if I missed my bus I wouldn’t have to wait 20 or even 30 min for the next one to come by! I tell others at my work about using the bus for the bike racks. They don’t really take to the idea. However Metrolink is where most people will use their bikes. They now that if they wait it won’t be more than like 10 min and they can wheel their bike on board. I do know there are others that use the bike racks and I like them for the times I need them. However for most people Metrolink is the best option. I know one person in particular who is waiting just for the new cross county project to complete before he starts bicycle commuting to our work place (US Bank on Olive near 170). Thanks Steve for posting this cool news!

    Keep Cycling!

  12. Jim Zavist says:

    Since I tend to be pragmatic, I’m always asking how we can actually pay for improved transit. The typical answer is a sales tax, anywhere from ¼% (St. Louis County) to ½% (St Louis City) on up to a full 1% (Denver and other cities). I was just reading about a proposal out of Seattle that’s also attractive, a 10% tax on commercial parking lots. This gets to the “root of the problem”, and I would even look at expanding it to include an additional annual per-space tax on commercial parking spaces (taxing residential parking would kill any proposal). $500 (or $2,000?!) per office parking spot, and $800 (or $3,000?!) per retail parking spot would go a looooooong ways toward both paying for maintenance of and improvements to our transportation infrastructure AND it would force people to look at the true costs of providing “free” parking!

  13. jeff says:

    “$500 (or $2,000?!) per office parking spot, and $800 (or $3,000?!) per retail parking spot would go a looooooong ways toward both paying for maintenance of and improvements to our transportation infrastructure AND it would force people to look at the true costs of providing “free” parking!”

    Unfortunately, that would put a lot of locally owned, transit-minded, forward thinking small business owners in a bind. Think about long term leases, that incorporate parking spaces. The landlord would certainly pass those costs on to the tenants.

    If I was a business owner -trying to make a living contributing to the city – and I was told I had to pay $100(0) for each parking space in the name or encouraging customers to take mass transit, I would not be happy. I would say, after you give my customers a way to get to me, then you can take away my spaces (ie built it first, because I don’t believe you). That might even constitute an illegal taking (it’s been awhile since I took a con law class) if it effectively prevented me from doing business.

    I’m sure there’s a way to do it, but to phase it in. And as I like the market to reflect the true costs of things (except concert tickets and baseball tickets, natch), I think that’s proabbly a good idea…

  14. Jim Zavist says:

    That’s partly my point . . . taxes pay a major share of any transit system’s operations, and there doesn’t seem to be much political will here to raise the local sales taxes. Compared to a bus, a streetcar is a luxury. Until more money can be found, the limited current revnues must be focused on keeping what we have now running, not creating new money pits that benefit only a narrow slice of our population!

  15. Steve Menner says:

    The transit sales tax makes up 60 percent of metro operating budget. We also need to pressue missouri legistalors to start provide a decent operating subsidy. metro state subsidy used to be 4 millon a year now the state gives only 1 million but 900,000 of that goves to moter vechice and diseal tax. Diseal costs has went up dramitacly contribing to metro money problems. The federal govt. only provides funds for capital imporvent and cannot be used for operating expenses. witout addition 28 million in new renvue metro will has to make 25 percent cuts which would be devasting to system

  16. Jim Zavist says:

    Why should the state fund local transit systems? How many times is someone from Mexico or Cuba (the cities, not the countries) going to use Metro? Mass transit is a metropolitan issue, not a state issue. Tax St. Louis City, St. Louis County, Jefferson County and St. Charles County residents on this side of the river AND build a regional system that works!

  17. Steve Menner says:

    All other state beside missouri gives at least 15 percent operating subsidy to local transit system. In Los angles which is one of the most auto dominated area their system recives more than half of their operating subsdies. ST. louis is failing air quailty standards and have untill 2010 before they lose federal road programs if air quailty dosen’t by then.The state also give modot 500 millon subsidy beyond all renvue generated by fuel and license taxes.

  18. Steve Menner says:

    Correction to my eariler post. St. Louis county, St. Louis city, Madison county, St Clair country support metro with a 0.5 cent transit sales tax that voters apporved in 1983. St. charles and jefforson country do not have transit service because they do not subside it

  19. Jim Zavist says:

    The Colorado Dept. of Transportation provides zero funding to the Regional Transportation District in Denver. RTD’s funding comes from a 1% local sales tax, fares, advertising and federal funds.

    St. Louis County collects a ½% sales tax for transit, but only half (¼%) actually goes to transit. The other half gets spent on improving roads . . .

  20. Jim Zavist says:

    St. Charles and Jefferson Counties don’t pay to subsidize transit, but they should. As congestion increases, more of their residents will use Metro’s outlying park-and-ride lots for their trips into the city. Perhaps we should cahrge them for parking?


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