A two-mile streetcar line in downtown has the potential to be an extremely positive amenity for Kansas City.
By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH
The Kansas City Star
The project has gotten this far thanks to a small but passionate band of downtown residents and the pugnacious leadership of City Council member Russ Johnson along with essential backing from Mayor Sly James.
If all goes as planned, the $100 million project will be moving people in 2015.
Yes, I do have concerns about it. Its deplorable that supporters suppressed voter turnout by using a complicated (but legal) process aimed at generating only positive ballots on the proposed property and sales tax increases. And its disappointing that only a small number of downtown property owners will be financing much of the project.
Still, when the votes are counted next week, the good news is that its highly likely the taxes will be approved.
In coming years, the citys plan should be a winner. It could:
• Spur development.
The fixed route down Main Street provides a road map for investments in businesses, offices and living units along a line that will start in the City Market and ends, for now, at Union Station.
The streetcar will deliver customers, workers and residents to the front doors of many buildings. People who wont ride buses will ride streetcars, boosting their usefulness.
More people likely will live downtown. And hallelujah some ugly downtown parking lots may be replaced with apartments.
• Attract young people to Kansas City.
One knock against this city is the fuddy-duddy leadership that often balks at new ideas. One way around that is to embrace something cool, something that helps young people live their lives in an urban environment.
Many other cities have streetcars or light rail; Kansas City needs to pay attention to young people and their values, to show them that staying in or coming to the city is the right move for them.
Entrepreneurs of any age also want to be in a city thats willing to take risks just like they are doing.
• Move people.
Supporters made a brilliant decision by deciding streetcar rides will be free, at least in the beginning.
That will lure more people to try the streetcar. It will benefit the people who are paying taxes for the streetcar but also others such as downtown commuters on lunch breaks. They will be exposed to the streetcar and perhaps see good reasons to support extensions to other parts of the city.
• Be one more strategy to create a modern city.
Not everyone supported a new downtown arena; critics said we already had Kemper. Or a bigger zoo, because the current one supposedly was good enough. Or renovations to the Truman Sports Complex; skeptics said it was just another subsidy for sports.
Yet voters appropriately embraced plans for Sprint Center, a first-class zoo and better stadiums.
Along with those and other publicly financed attractions, the streetcar will be one more way to make Kansas City a better place to live, work and play.
As with any costly project, the streetcar could go off course for many reasons.
Supporters must keep it within budget, even while streets are ripped up and old utility lines are replaced. Johnson said a large contingency fund will meet that challenge.
Construction schedules must be met so the project doesnt get bogged down. This is a new amenity that will need all the good publicity it can get.
Future system expansion may require a different funding source. Good plans are required for whos going to pay for that and how quickly it might come.
Even with a new streetcar system, Kansas Citians cant take their eyes off more important priorities such as improving schools, reducing the high violent crime rate and fixing crumbling sewers.
A two-mile streetcar line is not a panacea for all that ails Kansas City. But its worth having, its worth paying for and it definitely will be worth using.