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Kansas City’s streetcar glory days hold lessons for today

Updated: 2013-11-24T00:07:51Z

By LYNN HORSLEY

The Kansas City Star

As Kansas City lays its first streetcar rail in 66 years, it is unleashing a wave of nostalgia for the days when the city had one of the nation’s most extensive streetcar systems.

It’s also triggering a lot of differing opinions and questions about whether this transportation system from a bygone era can really carry the city into the future. Supporters and critics alike say there are lessons to be learned from those long-ago days.

Among the optimists are Delbert Stitz, 80, of Overland Park, who is convinced that streetcars can help Kansas City thrive again. He remembers riding the streetcars from his Kansas City, Kan., home all the way to Swope Park in Kansas City through the 1940s and early 1950s, then being crushed when they were replaced by buses near his home in 1955.

“It was just easy. And it was fun, too,” he recalled, adding that now it’s a way to keep rejuvenating downtown. “For the kids and younger people or somebody that’s working downtown, oh my God, they don’t have to pay for a parking lot.”

But Paul Davenport, who is in his 70s and now lives in Grandview, warns the streetcars will be costly and an aggravation for all the car traffic, as they were back in the early 1950s, when he rode the Troost streetcar from 32nd to 39th streets and then caught a bus to Westport High.

“The bus was easier to get places,” he recalled. “Otherwise you had your tracks and overhead wires. That was really a nuisance if you were driving and had to get behind one of those streetcars.”

Davenport wonders why more people aren’t talking to old-timers who remember the streetcars and the valid reasons they went away –– including that so many people preferred their own automobile. He thinks that situation still exists today.

As Kansas City starts construction on a two-mile starter line through downtown, and begins planning to build an additional 10 miles of line over the next decade, advocates say there is a way to recapture what was good about the past streetcars while adapting them to a 21st-century world filled with highways and cars. Numerous other cities are jumping on board.

“A lot of what we are doing is going to a pre-1950 way, putting people back in downtowns,” said City Councilman Russ Johnson, the City Council’s point person on the streetcar project.

“From 1950 to 2000, every downtown was in decline. And guess what, we’re turning those around city by city and downtowns are being repopulated ... and the way to do that is you have to have transportation options that are less car-centric.”

The current route will run from the River Market to Union Station. But advocates say extensions are essential. They point out that development and population density once followed the old streetcar lines and can again, especially on Main Street south of Union Station to 43rd Street or 51st Street, and along Independence Avenue, 31st Street and the Country Club right of way near the Plaza, Brookside Boulevard and Wornall Road.

Kansas City is studying which of those would be the first extensions from the starter line.

In the heyday of the 1920s, Kansas City’s streetcar system was one of the most extensive in the nation, spanning more than 300 miles, according to the streetcar history book “A Splendid Ride,” authored by former Star editor Monroe Dodd. But even then, Dodd notes, the system struggled with the cost of serving a city of such sprawling size and lack of density.

Back then private companies ran the lines, and there were numerous bankruptcies and reorganizations, he said.

Many of the routes led downtown, which was indeed hopping from the 1920s to 1950. Ridership neared its peak after World War II, with 136 million riders a year on 32 streetcar lines, according to the book.

But the last streetcar track was laid in 1947 on Troost Avenue from 55th to 63rd Street. A decade later, ridership had plunged to 46 million riders a year. It all came crashing down in June 1957, beaten by competition from buses that were much less expensive to operate and from residents’ infatuation with cars.

Now, advocates realize they need to deal with three key issues that were prevalent in the old system and will remain as they rebuild: Compatibility with cars, connecting sprawling neighborhoods, and cost.

•  Traffic. Davenport remembers the unsightly electrical lines and countless clashes between cars and streetcars in the old days.

“If a car stalled across the tracks, that was the end of the streetcar until he got out of the way,” Davenport said.

City Councilman Dick Davis, who supports new streetcars in Kansas City, said he got a taste of that same problem this month when visiting Seattle for a National League of Cities meeting. He rode Seattle’s streetcar but observed it was “snail transit,” not rapid transit, because there was too much traffic in lanes with both cars and streetcars.

Tom Trabon, chairman of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority, which will oversee the streetcar operation after the route is completed in 2015, said modern electrical lines aren’t nearly as intrusive as the old systems.

As for car and streetcar clashes, he agreed that a wreck or a car blocking the rails “shuts down the system.” But he said the solution is rapid towing to get vehicles out of the way. And there won’t be nearly the number of streetcars to compete with cars as in the old days.

•  Connecting neighborhoods. Part of Russ Johnson’s passion for the streetcar stems from his mother Ilene’s experience when she lived on 12th Street east of Brooklyn Avenue just out of high school in 1951. She rode the streetcar downtown to her job at Southwestern Bell and even out to Starlight Theatre in Swope Park.

“Here’s somebody who was right out of high school, didn’t have a car, moved to a big city and was able to live, work and play without a car and used the streetcar system,” Johnson said.

When Johnson, who was raised in Nebraska, moved to Kansas City in 1993, he didn’t feel that kind of connectivity between downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, but believes the streetcar can help restore it.

Veteran commercial real estate broker Whitney Kerr Sr., 79, agrees. He remembers the old Country Club route that carried 42,000 passengers per day right up to the end in 1957, and says it’s crucial to at least get Main Street rebuilt to 43rd Street. “Get that spine restored,” he said.

•  Cost. Kansas City’s initial two-mile route is costing $100 million, and a 10-mile extension could cost $400 million, city officials estimate.

They say they would seek at least half the funding from federal, state and other sources, but half would likely have to come from locals. Funding options would almost surely require some type of sales and property tax increase.

Johnson and others say they’ve been struck by the public’s enthusiasm for the rail extensions, even recognizing the costs. But there are still plenty of skeptics, including even Harold Ambrosius Sr., 88, one of Kansas City’s last remaining streetcar drivers.

Ambrosius, who drove a streetcar from 1946 to 1957 and then a bus until he retired in 1990, still lives in Waldo and has nothing but fond memories of the streetcar. His cars carried people of all income levels and walks of life. He hated to see them go, and he’d love to see them back.

“By far, people like the streetcar better than the bus,” he said.

It’s hard to compare costs of the old streetcars with the new ones, which are far sleeker vehicles, or construction costs. But in 1927 the rail company spent $350,000 –– or $4.7 million in today’s dollars –– to re-lay eight miles of track. But then wasn’t starting from scratch.

Still, Ambrosius knows downtown property owners are already burdened with a tax for the starter line. He sees the city’s skyrocketing rates for sewers and knows about plans for a costly new airport terminal. He questions how far the system can really extend.

“Yeah, the cost is high,” he said. “I’m a streetcar man. But I’m kind of leery about what the costs are nowadays.”

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

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