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Feasibility Of A Streetcar From Downtown To The Loop

The Partnership for Downtown St. Louis wants to connect to the city’s central corridor to the west. On Friday it issued a Request for Qualifications (link) to hire a consulting firm to study the feasibility to connect to midtown, the central west end and the planned Loop Trolley. From the RFQ:

The proposed streetcar will strengthen the region’s transit system by feeding into current and proposed MetroLink and MetroBus lines; solidifying existing and spurring additional economic investments. With the streetcar line’s frequent stops along the central east-west corridor, the line will complement and serve intersecting MetroLink and MetroBus routes. With the efforts for the Loop Trolley, the ability to connect the two lines would benefit both efforts and enable riders to go from Downtown to University City by streetcar. A preliminary analysis of connecting the two lines should be included. The feasibility study will build the foundation for additional environmental and engineering work, the tools necessary for the basic environmental work to position this project for additional funding opportunities in the future. 

Post-Dispatch writer Tim Bryant made his route suggestion on the Building Blocks blog:

Begin with a single-track loop around the Old Post Office downtown. Close Eighth Street between Olive and Locust to traffic and convert that block to a streetcar terminal connected directly to an expanded 8th & Pine MetroLink station below.

ABOVE: Modern streetcar in Portland OR

From the Old Post Office, a double-track line could head west on Locust past the Central Library, through the growing Downtown West area and Midtown Alley to near SLU, where the line could jog over to Olive Street and continue west through Grand Center to the CWE.At Walton Avenue, the line could head south then west again at McPherson Avenue next to the apartment building where a young Tennessee Williams lived with his family. (The family’s apartment is believed by some to have provided Williams the inspiration to write “The Glass Menagerie.”)

After passing through a CWE business area, the streetcar line could turn south on Kingshighway then west on Waterman to Union, to Pershing and, finally, to DeBaliviere Avenue, where the streetcar could end with another connection to MetroLink and the planned Loop Trolley. (STLtoday.com w/map)

I’ll admit the idea of a streetcar line running on Locust directly in front of my building is mighty appealing, but that’s main problem with Bryant’s route — it goes where development’s already happened. Thus little would be gained from the significant upfront capital costs.  To spur “additional economic investments” the route needs to go where that’s actually possible.

Currently two bus lines connect downtown to parts west: the #10 on Olive/Lindell and the #97 on Washington and Delmar west of Compton. Simply replacing one or the other with a streetcar line isn’t feasible. Well you could replace the #10 on Olive/Lindell but  you’d not want to keep going west of Kingshighway with Forest Park on one side and mansions on the other.

I’ve suggested a route before, from November 2008:

An example, that I’ve articulated before, would be Olive heading West from downtown, jumping North to Delmar at Vandeventer or Sarah and then continuing West on Delmar to the loop. (post)

My thinking is unchanged, the opportunities to build new density along the route and within a few blocks in each direction are excellent.

East of Tucker a single loop would be made through the central business district, passing no further than one block from the 8th & Pine MetroLink station.  West of Tucker a track on either side of a center median. Passengers would board from points along the median. This is important to keep costs down since St. Louis streetcars originally ran in the center so manhole covers and other access points are on the outer edges and the center is relatively free of obstructions.

Like Bryant’s route I want the line to be on Olive west of Grand. The Olive-Lindell split has been reworked (post) since I last suggested a streetcar follow this old route but the intersection could be redone again. Staying on Olive is important at this point because of potential development sites between Grand and Vandeventer. At Vandeventer I’d make right and go north one block to Delmar. From there follow Delmar and join the Loop Trolley.

How do you justify such a massive capital expenditure when the area is currently served by bus routes. If our zoning remains unchanged along the route the expense can’t possibly be justified at all. I love streetcars and to have a line within a block of my loft would be wonderful. But as we’ve seen with MetroLink light rail, without government setting development goals through the use of it’s police power a streetcar line won’t spur new investment and density along the line. Sure, some would happen, but as much as if required. The highest density should be on the blocks facing the route with a drop on each of the next two blocks.

I’m glad to see the Partnership taking this first step. Next would be dropping the idea of north & south light rail lines, building streetcar lines instead to connect north & south city into downtown.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "34 comments" on this Article:

  1. JZ71 says:

    You have an interesting perspective.  I, too, queston the viability of the proposal, but not for the zoning and development issues that you raise:  “it goes where development’s already happened.  Thus little would be gained from the significant upfront capital costs.  To spur ‘additional economic investments’ the route needs to go where that’s actually possible.”  With the exception of the easternmost portion, the rest of the route, while dense (by St. Louis standards) could certainly become denser, through redevelopment.  Even along your part of Locust, at least half of the street frontage consists of 1-2 story buildings or surface parking lots.  The real challenge is that many of the existing structures are old, and there’s a tendency (by some) to want to save every old structure in the city.

    My big concern is coordination.  What remains unsaid is who will operate the line and how it will be integrated into Metro’s existing network – will fares be distinct, or will transfers be simple and easy?  Will there be consistency bewteen the Loop trolley vehicles and the ones on this route?  Will the vehicles be serviced in the Loop’s maintenance facility, or will a separate one be required for this route?

    The fundamental issue remains deciding what a “good” transit system should be?  Should we focus on investing big dollars in “new” / different technologies, in hopes that they will both attract more riders and spur redevelopment here?  Or, should we focus on what really appeals to most transit riders, frequent, predictable, inexpensive and integrated service, using buses and light rail?  Would you be willing to pay two separate fares for the privelege of having a streetcar in front of your loft, if it were separate from Metro’s system?  Or, would you skip the new line, and just use Metro’s much-larger system, exclusively?

  2. Jeffvstl says:

    While I’d take rail transit any way and anywhere we can get it, I also think the priority should be a north side-south side connection before developing yet another central corridor line.  There are vast areas of the city that are not served by rail transit at all, and these are the densest neighborhoods with the highest share of transit ridership that would benefit most from rail transit.  Connecting the north and south sides would also help re-center downtown and would bring much-needed investment as well. 

    • I totally agree we need to connect north & south. It does make sense, however, to expand on the Loop system that will open first, using the same facility for vehicles for example.

    • A central east-west line would allow north-south lines to connect at various points. We can’t build seperate systems, each with their own storage and maintenance facility.

  3. PeterXCV says:

    Why are you so against rapid transit?

    • Light rail in the street is the wrong technology in the wrong place, too many compromises to try to achieve “rapid” speeds.

      • PeterXCV says:

        What about streetcars with dedicated lanes similar to the trams of Europe?

        • Streetcars and light rail are two very different modes. I’d love to see more streetcars in the region and light rail only for covering long distances where stops can be spread apart.

          • Eric says:

            What exactly is the point of streetcars in your opinion? Oh yeah, they are warm and fuzzy and magically attract ridership and investment. Except where they don’t. Try taking the subway-surface lines in West Philadelphia some time. The above-ground parts are unbearably slow and less desirable than the buses in the area, because the vehicles are less maneuverable and constantly get stuck in even moderate traffic. Nobody would take them, except that half the line is in a subway and thus part of the journey is very fast. The neighborhoods they go through have been slums for decades with no redevelopment. Unlike in Portland, these lines are a century old and did not happen to go through areas that were already primed for gentrification. Recently, after much lobbying by people like you, another streetcar line was added in North Philadelphia to replace a bus route, but once that was done ridership did not increase.

            Every developed country outside North America chooses a different model. Streetcars, or “trams” as they call them (when translating to English), run in separate lanes to avoid traffic. The stops are placed several hundred meters apart, because each stop adds a minute to journey time, so that trips of moderate length don’t take an unbearably long time. (The downside is that the elderly/disabled have a slightly longer walk to stops – this is a known tradeoff among transportation engineers. It is also true for buses, and for that reason European bus stops are much further apart than is typical in the US.) Traffic lights are synchronized so that the tram never has to wait. This kind of system WORKS – it is tested by the tens of millions of people who consider it the best way to get to work or play every day. Your streetcar, with none of these characteristics, is simply an expensive toy. In countries where more than a miniscule fraction of the population uses transit, the amounts of money hemorrhaged by your streetcars would quickly become impossibly high, which is why such systems are not used in Europe or East Asia.

          • Eric says:

            No discussion there of whether 1) the area would have experienced growth even without the streetcar, 2) the growth that occurred right next to the streetcar came at the expense of growth that would otherwise have occurred further away. Portland is a nice anecdote, but Philadelphia is an anecdote with the opposite lesson. That is why a scientific study is needed to analyze rigorously whether the streetcar is actually worth the investment.

  4. RyleyinSTL says:

    I also like the idea of a focus on North/South development.  Street car lines could run up/down Hampton/Union/KH/Grand/Jeff/Broadway and others and terminate at the current LRT line for east/west travel.  Yes many of those streets/avenues are already developed (at least on the south side) but this would help insure their survival and add walk-able rail transit back to many neighborhoods.

    A boy can dream! 

    • Eric says:

       Those corridors are not very developed. A 2 story building (unless it’s really important historically) can and should be replaced by a 4-8 story mixed use building. And the corridors are not even fully built up with 2 story buildings.

  5. Moe says:

    So now lets spend millions to lay street car lines????  Gees….the future is forward not backwards people!
    Why invest in something that will not get used and tied in place (overhead/underground tracks, etc).

    If people aren’t going to use a bus, what makes anyone think they will use a trolly?

  6. jkg says:

    Great ideas. Note that there were streetcar lines on most of these streets. You can still see the tracks at Olive-Walton-McPherson. Though, keeping the line straight and on major streets so that it could travel faster than a bus, would be a good way to differentiate it from what bus lines have to offer.

    • JZ71 says:

       If it shares the street, it will not be any faster than a bus – both are subject to the same traffic laws, plus if it’s as popular as the advocates hope, stops will be more frequent and take longer than current bus routes.  And please explain what a streetcar would offer that a bus doesn’t offer now, that “differentiate” thing.

      As for your previous observations – yes, buses require roads, the difference is that that cost is shared among multiple users, not just transit.  Streetcars require rails, which are a unique, additional cost, and a real pain if you’re a bike rider.  “Inefficient diesel” – current diesel is very efficient and very clean.  However, if you think electric through overhead wires is THE answer, we can just bring back trolley buses (and there’s a reason why few cities still use these).  “Higher labor costs” – please explain your statement – both require similar numbers of operators and maintenance people.  “Space on the street” – the number of passengers dictates vehicle size, not its propulsion system.

      In the 1890’s -1930’s, when the construction of trolley lines were at their peak, streetcars were superior to comparable bus technology.  From the 1920’s on, buses evolved more than streetcars, to the point where the economics favored, and continue to favor, buses over streetcars, and streetcar lines were replaced by bus lines as equipment wore out and demands changed.  Are streetcars more attractive to more riders than buses?  Yes!  But when it comes down to a choice between operating one streetcar line or 3 or 4 bus lines FOR THE SAME MONEY, moving 3-4 times as many passengers, by boring buses, than it becomes much harder to justify the costs associated with streetcars.

      • A streetcar holds more passengers than a bus so more people are moved per operator. Large center openings make boarding/unvarying significantly faster than with a bus. This is especially true for the disabled and those with shopping carts & strollers. Developers are willing to build high density projects along streetcar lines whereas they ignore bus lines or try to get stops moved away from their projects.

        • Eric says:

          Single car streetcars hold no more passengers than a bus. A multiple car train can hold more passengers, but that’s already in the category of “light rail” which you don’t want.

          Buses can also have boarding via multiple doors. The problem with fast boarding with either bus or streetcar is making sure the fare is paid. Typically bus fares are collected by the driver, which is inefficient, but putting a separate fare collector at the back door is too expensive, and “proof of purchase” methods are generally considered to have too much fare evasion. All these considerations apply just as much to a streetcar as to a bus. MetroLink uses “proof of purchase” because when you have multiple attached vehicles, so many people board at once that it’s obviously impractical for the driver to collect fares.

          It is commonly claimed that streetcar lines unique encourage development. But please show me a study that proves that using data, I’ve never seen one yet.

          • JZ71 says:

            A larger vehicle, bus or rail, holds more passengers than a smaller vehicle.  Many cities use 60′ articulated buses that hold 50% more passengers than the 40′-45′ (large) buses that Metro uses here, increasing operator productivity.  Low-floor buses offer similar accessibility as low-floor streetcars.  And, as Eric noted, the number of doors and fare collection are directly related – the streetcars in Memphis and Tampa use a single door for boarding and a bus-type fare box.  Bottom line, the differences between buses and streetcars boils down to tracks and wheels – there are multiple sizes, styles and configurations of both kinds of vehicles.

            The one advantage that most rail vehicles have over buses is that they can be connected together, with one operator operating multiple cars to move hundreds of passengers at one time (as CTA does with 8 cars in Chicago).  The two limitations are platform length and available amperage.  San Diego, Denver, Salt Lake City and St. Louis all use the same type of Siemens light-rail vehicles.  St. Louis is limited to two-vehicle consists because of the size of our downtown stations, while two trains fit, end to end, at the Shrewsbury station.  In contrast, Denver and, I believe, San Diego, can and do both handle four-car consists on all of their lines.  Streetcars can and do do the same thing – the limitation being the length of the city block – you don’t want to block intersections.

            The real tradeoff is vehicle size versus frequency.  With the exception of the end of a major sporting event, you rarely need to move tens of thousands of people at the same time from the same location.  Let’s do the math.  Assuming a 30′ vehicle seats 24 passengers, a 40′ vehicle seats 32 and a 60′ vehicle seats 48, the number of passengers per hour on a route will dictate the ideal vehicle size.  Assuming a strong 500 boardings per hour, including some standees, you have the following options, assuming bi-directional travel:

            30′ – 20 vehicles, every 7 minutes
            40′ – 15 vehicles, every 10 minutes
            60′ – 10 vehicles, every 15 minutes

            If you use tandem streetcars, you could double these, up to two 60′ vehicles operating every half hour.  Yes, you would have fewer operators, but the schedules start to really suck.  For most riders, they’ll trade more frequent service (a shorter wait to board) for a bigger vehicle any day.  Until we get some serious increases in density / serious increases in actual ridership, on most corridors, we’re going to be much better off focusing on increasing frequency to grow ridership than on trying to figure out how to put bigger vehicles, be they rubber tired or steel wheeled, on them.  Even on the #70 Grand bus line, that currently has 10 minute service, I’m betting that most riders would rather see more 40′ buses, running every 7 minutes instead of 60′ articulated buses running the same 10-minute schedule, and they certainly wouldn’t want to see the current buses replaced with streetcars running every 15, 20 or 30 minutes.  It all boils down to dollars . . . .

  7. Joe says:

    It’s got to run where people want to go or it’ll die, I love the proposed route.

  8. Modern streetcars are very nice, and much more accessible than Metro Buses.  You don’t need to step up as high to get in.  Plus they use American-Made Energy, either coal fired electricity (most likely) or Nuclear energy. 

    Metrolink should be used for longer distance faster travel.

    And yes, we also need these Modern streetcars to connect north and south, and introduce this at the same time.

    The Streetcars should not be routed to undeveloped areas.  They should be used to improve travel to areas which can support them.

    Just because the oil and tire industries conspired to kill our streetcar system in the 50’s doesn’t make them a viable mode of transportation.

    The Metro Buses currently use the Civic Center station for all their connection activity.
    This seems pretty crazy.

    Why not use a facility that was used for facilitating passenger connections- UNION STATION.
    Incorporate the transfer of passengers from Streetcars, to Metrolink, to Metro Buses there.

    I also like the idea of a Loop near the Old Post Office downtown as well.

    • Recent modern streetcar routes (Portland, Seattle) have connected established points but through underdeveloped areas. This gives room for considerable new construction to take place. They both mandated minimum densities and set maximum parking so get sufficient density to make the investment in the line pay off.

    • Eric says:

       Because Union Station is no longer the main destination in downtown.

    • JZ71 says:

      I just love the mantra that “the oil and tire industries conspired to kill our streetcar system in the 50’s”, that they ruthlessly bought up streetcar lines and replaced them with buses.  They were able to “do” this because a) the streetcar companies were struggling financially, unable to replace aging equipment and infrastructure and losing riders to the private automobile, b) synthetic rubber technology developed during World War II made rubber tires more reliable, c) improvements in diesel engine power and reliability made them viable power plants for public transit vehicles, and d) growth was happening beyond the ends of the existing streetcar lines, and the streetcar companies had no funds to keep up with this growth.  The only “conspiracy” was offering a more efficient, more flexible, more reliable and less expensive solution for moving people between point A and point B.  Using your logic, it could be argued that the electric and coal barons conspired to put the cable car and horse-drawn trolley systems out of business at the end of the Nineteenth Century!  Technology evolves, and people choose the least expensive and most convenient options that work, at that time and in that place, for THEM!

      I understand the attraction of using “American-Made Energy”.  I also understand the attraction of low fares and the big difference between having service (at all) and not having service.  When RTD in Denver was exploring their options for commuter rail service between DIA and downtown Denver, the cost to electrify the rail line was twice the cost of providing diesel-powered service.  Electricity has its advantages, but the payback was something like 30 years.  A similar dynamic came into play to the north – the choice came down to electric trains to Boulder or diesel trains to Boulder, then continuing onto Longmont, twice as far.  “Bang for the buck”. living within a budget is an unfortunate reality.  The number one goal, the primary mission of most transit systems, is to move as many people to as many places as possible, given finite resources.  Choosing coal over oil is a political decision, not a wise financial choice, IF your goal is to get service out to as many people as possible.  The same goes for rail versus bus – you need a lot of riders to justify any investment in rail, be it streetcars, light rail or commuter rail, since the capital costs are so much greater than just buying and deploying buses.  Bottom line, there is no one, right answer.  The best solution is just that, the best option that balances ridership, capital costs and operating costs, to maximize service for as many people as possible.

  9. Kevinsheld says:

    My streetcar line proposal:

    Start at Gravois at the City/County line and go all the way down to Chouteau and Gravois.  If the track can be placed on that overpass, then have the streetcar run on into downtown STL. 

    Such a line could promote continued growth along the Gravois corridor and boost recovery in spots.  Plus, it gives the southsiders a chance to come downtown without worrying about parking/vandals/car break-ins.

    • Eric says:

      I would have said downtown-Gravois-Chippewa and ending at Shrewsbury station. This would allow efficient commuting in both directions, as well as revitalizing the areas in between.
      Similarly, downtown-Natural Bridge-UMSL on the north side, for the same reasons.
      A third good line would be on Grand.
      The routes are long enough that stops would have to be every 400 meters or so, no closer. A lane of traffic in each direction would have to be made train-only. The train would need to have traffic light priority.
      Of course, just using the separate lane and coordinated traffic lights for buses (BRT) would probably be cheaper and similarly effective.

  10. ihtnep says:

    I Iove streetcar history, and wish they had never gone away. Grand might be a good starting point, as parts of it are well developed, but others still need work. I would like to see private money pay for it, joint venture with utilities and developers, perhaps? Also, please make them look old school.

    • JZ71 says:

      In my mind, there are three things that make streetcars “different” from buses, a) steel wheels and tracks, instead of rubber tires, b) overhead, electric power and c) they look different, either “old school”/historic or “modern”.  The first two define a fixed route and are difficult to change, while the third is purely aesthetic.  What I’m wondering is what is the one thing that makes streetcars “magical” and/or “better” than a comparable bus?  (And, I’m guessing that it’s different to different people.)  If I understand Steve, his hot button is a fixed route, which he believes will “encourage development”.  For you, it appears that history is the big thing.

      The reason I ask is twofold.  One, is if we can agree on one item, there are likely less-expensive options, somewhere between a bus and a full-blown streetcar, that can be implemented more broadly.  Two, if that one item is that important that it would significantly increase acceptance of transit by the public, then implementing it more broadly, even if it costs more, may make sense.

      There are trolley buses – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolleybus  There are diesel-powered streetcars – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritage_streetcar – and, potentially, hybrid streetcars – http://www.ameritram.com/  There are plenty of bus styles, both retro and futuristic – http://www.optimabus.com/streetcar_specs_AH28d.php and http://www.rtd-fastracks.com/us36_15  Focusing exclusively on the “modern streetcar” as an all-or-nothing proposition is short-sighted.  The focus should be on the best solution!

  11. Tpekren says:

    The one argument that buses have against them is the simple fact that they are the most labor intensive form of transit and therefore not always a cheaper better version of transit.  However, I would argue in some respects that this proposal using Locust and a streetcar on Grand Ave are probably the two that make any sense for St. Lous in the next decade or two.  Why suggest no more than these two lines and keep buses as your priority mode of transit?

    Simply put, St. Louis city, region and state essentially has had stagnant/flat GDP over the last three years and the forecasts going forward are not any better.  That is very different from Portland/Seattle as both cities used streetcars as a means to steer growth that was already happening and was happening outside the context of transit but within geographical constraints.  As in Seattle’s case, it also helps that someone like Amazon essentially buys a city neighborhood and guarantees you thousands of employees as potential users of your new infrasctructure investment.  That is why I would take a route such as Locust from downtown to Barnes Jewish/Wash Medical/Cortex that already shows/serves promising residential development, can conveniently connect SLU/Grand Center and has employment centers on each end.  A fixed streetcar will have users and might attract more users and can probably have cheaper operations ratio vs buses if done right.  In other words, these corridors are probably the best two areas in the region where you could offer a car less/urban environment with access to jobs that stands out from the rest of the area.  Until then, significant growth for the region needs to happens, otherwise you won’t be able to support much more than one or two streetcar lines at most.

    As far as the loop, Joe Edwards wouldn’t have never pursued it in my mind if Wash U didn’t own so much property in the immediate area and will in time make it part of the loop into its defacto north campus and thus the trolley a defacto school transit.  Nor do I think it is a very good idea to entertain the idea of connecting a fixed transit with essentially a tourist/specific end user system.  In other words, tourists will either drive to Forest Park/Loop to take the trolley to and from Forest Park/Loop or Students will use the trolley for the immediate are and hop metrolink if they want to get beyond the loop/forest park.  In other words, why would any transit user want to take a streetcar from downtown to loop when metrolink will so much faster and more convenient? and why would you want to put those percious dollars of adding a couple more miles of fixed transit when you still need to rebuild 22nd street interchange and knock down the raised section of downtown I-70 as two examples?

  12. JZ71 says:

    Only tangentially related, but still interesting, especially to rail geeks, is the history of the Galloping Goose in rural Colorado.  From an article in the Denver Post:  “The Rio Grande Southern Railroad was struggling in the Great Depression and operators were too strapped to run the labor-intensive steam engines. So the railroad’s team came up with an idea to equip a motorized Pierce-Arrow limousine car with a boxy baggage compartment that could handle both passengers and postal delivery along the 160-mile stretch between Durango and Ridgway. The idea kept the railroad afloat.”

    The point is that transportation evolves.  What made perfect sense at some point in time does not necessarily remain timeless.  When demand and/or revenue drops, you have to either adapt or die.  Yes, buses aren’t as sexy as streetcars, but they hit the sweet spot of demand versus resources better than rail-based option in MOST (but not in all) cases.

    *Read more:  Galloping Goose railcars reunited after 60 years at CO Railroad Museum – The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/breakingnews/ci_20856614/galloping-goose-railcars-reunited-after-60-years-at#ixzz1xonfgChU

    also:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galloping_Goose_%28railcar%29


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