The Kansas City Star — After attending a streetcar workshop at last week’s national Smart Growth conference in Kansas City, one thing is for sure: They’re not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
By KEVIN COLLISON
In fact, streetcars appear to be the transit equivalent of a platypus.
Most are quirky beasts when it comes to how individual cities go about planning, funding and operating the type of project that Kansas City is about to dive headfirst into this year.
“These are a little bit oddball projects with different groups involved,” said William Cross, director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority. “Putting together creative funding sources is something you’ll have to do.”
A revealing anecdote by David Vozzolo, the streetcar guru at HDR Engineering, was that Portland, Ore., long considered the national beacon for modern streetcars in the U.S., was actually a hard sell with the local transit agency there.
“The political leadership in Portland pushed for streetcars, but the transit agency opposed it,” Vozzolo said. “They called it the donkey cars.”
Vozzolo and Cross were on a panel titled “Streetcar Projects Encouraging Smart Growth Coast to Coast” at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference. It drew 1,200 people from around the nation to the Kansas City Convention Center.
By June, construction will be underway on a 2-mile streetcar line in downtown Kansas City that will link Crown Center with the River Market.
The $102 million project is scheduled to be rolling by mid-2015. Our city is one of about 10 communities across the country planning to build a streetcar line in the next three years, according to Vozzolo, an HDR vice president, who moderated the panel.
Interestingly, Kansas City isn’t all that far behind the curve. The only other cities operating what Vozzolo said were modern streetcars are Portland, Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.
“It’s really a key time for this new ‘old’ mode,” he said.
In addition to Cross, who talked about a 2.7-mile streetcar line proposed for downtown Fort Lauderdale, the panelists were Shiraz Tangri, who discussed plans for a proposed four-mile streetcar line in downtown Los Angeles, and Sherri McIntyre, who’s charged with implementing the Kansas City project.
Back to the platypus analogy.
In Fort Lauderdale, the “Wave” streetcar plan is being championed and led by a private downtown business organization called the Downtown Development Authority. The $142.6 million plan is expected to receive about half its funding from the federal government, and the rest split between state and local sources.
In LA, the route is being pushed by a non-profit group called Los Angeles Streetcar Inc., and half of its $125 million cost is being covered by a Community Facilities District.
Like the Transportation Development District being used here, the LA special taxing district was approved by people who live inside its boundaries, not the property owners.
But unlike Kansas City, Tangri said LA’s district has a staggered assessment rate with properties closer to the streetcar route levied at a higher rate. That’s because they’re expected to benefit the most economically.
The rest of the LA project will be matched by federal and local government sources, but no money from the state.
Of the three cities, the Kansas City plan, which has been championed by City Hall, most notably Mayor Sly James and Councilman Russ Johnson, will rely the most heavily on local, actually hyper-local, funding.
Almost three-fourths of the budget will come from the property tax assessment and one-cent sales tax levied on downtown property owners and businesses; the rest comes from the federal government.
And as with LA, our plan gets no state money.
There are similarities in the goals of all the streetcar programs.
The big thing is to link major downtown activity centers that will generate traffic and also pass areas in need of redevelopment such as vacant buildings and parking lots.
“The advice from Portland was you build the system to get people to develop along it,” Tangri said.
There also were a couple of cautionary observations that could apply to Kansas City.
Vozzolo noted that streetcars are designed to be urban circulators, short-range lines under 3 miles that serve downtowns and nearby neighborhoods with quick, on-and-off trips.
And Cross said patience and commitment were vital. It’s taken 10 years in Fort Lauderdale, and forging lasting partnerships has been essential.
“Building a partnership is critical and also produces partners for future projects,” he said. “We want to continue this and get the community excited.”
This raises the question of the future prospects of our plan.
Many people believe that to be truly useful it will have to be extended south on Main Street as far as the Country Club Plaza and University of Missouri-Kansas City.
But there are big questions. Will the limited taxing zone downtown be extended down Main? Would they be separate districts or combined to form one, larger taxing base? Or will the city leaders go back to voters and seek a citywide funding source?
And does a streetcar basically intended for circulating people downtown have enough capacity to serve a route linking greater downtown with midtown and the Plaza?
And what about building lasting partnerships?
The current Kansas City plan and its heavy reliance on a limited tax base approved by a relatively small number of voters have left a sour taste with many downtown property owners.
Last week, two of them filed a lawsuit challenging the financing plan. McIntyre dismissed its significance, telling the audience, “We’re confident that will be a small blip.”
She may be right. But Kansas City leaders will eventually have to identify a politically palatable, broader-based game plan if they want to build the kind of workhorse streetcar system that will carry the city into the future.