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Kansas City looks further down the line to an expanded streetcar system

Updated: 2013-10-23T03:33:13Z

By LYNN HORSLEY

The Kansas City Star

Even before the first shovel of dirt is turned on downtown’s two-mile starter streetcar route, planning for the next extensions is shifting into high gear.

Several possible routes already are generating a lot of buzz, especially one that would extend south on Main Street, and another that would run east along Independence Avenue, or along 31st Street or Linwood Boulevard.

But even the planning won’t come cheap.

Kansas City is spending nearly $2.5 million to study eight possible routes that would encompass more than 20 miles south of the Missouri River. It is chipping in another $250,000 of the $600,000 cost to analyze the possibility of going over the river into North Kansas City.

And that’s just the beginning of the planning costs.

By Nov. 7, planners hope to recommend the best eight to 10 miles for the next streetcar expansion phase south of the river. The City Council could vote on that recommendation by Thanksgiving and then complete more in-depth analysis of the 10 miles by spring 2014, taking into account economic development potential, cost, ridership, population density and other factors.

After that, to do all the necessary engineering and environmental analysis on those eight to 10 miles would cost $1 million per mile, or $10 million, which the city currently doesn’t have in its budget.

“I understand that’s a large chunk of change,” Councilman Russ Johnson told a citizens advisory panel last week. “The reality is rail transit is very expensive.”

But Johnson and other council members said that the two-mile downtown streetcar route won’t be worth much unless it leads to a bigger system.

“It was never intended to be just two miles,” Johnson said.

City officials believe they have come up with an appropriate financing approach for the $10 million, which would involve getting a bank loan.

Interest-only payments, with a small amount of principal, probably would cost $100,000 per year in capital improvements sales tax funds until the city arrives at a long-term financing strategy to build those 10 miles. The Public Improvement Advisory Committee agreed to include those $100,000 annual payments in its five-year plan.

City Council members have informally endorsed the bank loan plan, saying it is needed to keep the streetcar momentum going.

“I would hope that in this next round, after this teeny-tiny starter route, we will provide enough funding to do a real starter system,” said Councilman John Sharp, who represents south Kansas City.

At-large Councilman Jim Glover said he liked all eight corridors under preliminary review, but the enthusiasm of residents for many of those routes could make picking the priorities a tough choice.

The eight corridors are:

• Main Street from Union Station (the end point of the downtown route) to the Country Club Plaza and the University of Missouri-Kansas City

• Country Club Right of Way (along an old trolley route) from 51st Street to 85th Street and Prospect Avenue

• Independence Avenue

• Southwest Boulevard

• 12th Street to the East Side

• 12th Street to the West Side

• 18th Street to the 18th and Vine Historic Jazz District

• 31st Street/Linwood Boulevard

Public workshops held in recent weeks drew more than 200 people and dozens of letters of support, with great enthusiasm for most of those corridors, said Chris Hernandez, a city spokesman.

“It seems very real now,” Hernandez said. “In all the previous efforts it was always like this ideal, ‘Will it happen?’”

Many people assume the next logical extension would be along Main Street from Union Station to the Plaza, and several council members agreed. But Hernandez said strong support also exists for Independence Avenue, for 31st/Linwood, and along the Country Club Right of Way, which already is dedicated for transit. He emphasized that extension would not jeopardize the Trolley Track Trail, which would be preserved.

Jessica Ray, the president of the Pendleton Heights Neighborhood Association, said her neighborhood and others nearby are pushing hard for an Independence Avenue extension.

“It’s the same as what downtown has been saying. The possibilities for investment and rebirth on the avenue are huge, and people see this as that opportunity,” she said. “I think one of the big things that was brought up is the need to reconnect our part of the city to downtown.”

Ray said there certainly were people along Independence who think streetcars would be a big waste of money and this isn’t the way the city should spend tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars.

“But if it’s going to happen, we want it to happen here,” she said.

Whitney Kerr Sr., a longtime commercial real estate broker, said there also is huge economic development potential with the old Country Club Right of Way, which carried streetcars until 1957 and could help re-create a rail spine from the River Market to 85th and Prospect.

Some people worry that the neediest neighborhoods will again get left out in this selection process. Forestine Beasley is a strong advocate for the 12th Street extension to the East Side, but she conceded that the workshop for that route was poorly attended because people didn’t think it would matter.

“The east side of Troost, they’re just used to not getting anything,” Beasley said.

That doesn’t have to be the case, Johnson told members of the Public Improvements Advisory Committee, because the opportunities for neighborhood revitalization could be greatest in those areas.

The planning process and cost does have its critics.

Mark McDowell, a longtime transit advocate, questioned why the city is spending the initial $2.5 million studying eight corridors south of the river, given all the other transit studies done over the years.

“Basically it seems to be an awful lot of money to do yet another study of where the streetcar should go,” he said.

McDowell said the city figured out a creative approach, a special taxing district, to help fund the downtown streetcar route. But he doesn’t believe most of the proposed extensions have that capability. He said the city should first figure out what route it can afford, because that has always been the stumbling block.

But Johnson said one component of the studies that are underway is assessing costs and possible financing approaches.

As for the Northland, Johnson said that extension has its own challenges and hurdles and is on a slower time frame. The cost of going over the river could be astronomical, and planners are just starting to look at that and how to connect to Burlington or Swift streets in North Kansas City.

Kansas City is sharing the costs of that study with North Kansas City, the Mid-America Regional Council and the Missouri Department of Transportation.

The first public workshop on that Northland extension is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 21 at the North Kansas City Community Center, 1999 Iron St.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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