As Kansas City pursues the possibility of streetcar extensions south of the Missouri River, North Kansas City is also exploring its own ideas to bring the system north of the river.
By LYNN HORSLEY
The Kansas City Star
That effort kicked off in earnest with a public outreach meeting Thursday night that drew more than 70 citizens, plus several dozen officials and consultants, to the North Kansas City Community Center.
Participants were enthusiastic about the streetcar’s potential to boost North Kansas City’s vitality, but equally concerned about the cost of getting the streetcars over the river, and the possible tax burden that might pose.
“I think we’re getting pretty excited about this thing,” Mayor Don Stielow told the crowd as the meeting began. He said later that he thinks it would be very beneficial for the city but acknowledged, “I worry about the cost. It’s going to take a lot of money.”
No specifics were presented, but it has been estimated that building a new streetcar bridge over the Missouri River could cost well over $50 million. And it would be difficult to get federal funds to help with that cost, because federal funding depends in part on the economic development potential of the project.
There’s no way to have economic development activity, consultants admitted, on a bridge that would have to span 1.7 miles of existing heavy railroad lines, the river itself and other unusable land to get to North Kansas City.
An alternative is to have the streetcar run on the existing Heart of America Bridge. But that bridge already has heavy car and truck traffic, along with a designated bicycle/pedestrian lane, and the traffic congestion is expected to get worse as the Northland grows. Engineers are still studying the bridge’s capacity to also handle the streetcar and what that would entail.
North Kansas City’s goal is to develop a plan for streetcar expansion through the city. It’s all building on the fact that Kansas City will soon begin construction on a starter line from River Market through downtown to Union Station. That starter line is expected to be completed in the latter part of 2015, and neighborhoods south of the Missouri River are already proposing extending the system south and east by about 10 miles.
Thursday’s public outreach meeting was part a study looking at the feasibility of bringing the streetcars north of the river and to the northern limits of North Kansas City. The inquiry will analyze whether the route should run on Burlington Street or Swift Avenue, the project’s estimated pricetag, and how to pay for it. The study, expected to cost up to $600,000, is being paid for jointly by Kansas City, North Kansas City, the Mid-America Regional Council and the Missouri Department of Transportation.
Dave Vozzolo, director of the streetcar practice for HDR Engineering Inc., told the crowd that another public hearing will be held in January, and final recommendations are expected in late March.
Bob Boydston, retired Clay County sheriff and a North Kansas City resident, said he wished more information was already available on the potential costs and financing methods for the project. But he also spoke for many when he said he sees the streetcars as a way to bring new people to North Kansas City landmarks such as Chappell’s Sports Bar and Museum and Smokin Guns BBQ.
“We sometimes feel like we’re living in the shadow of Kansas City, but we have a lot to offer,” he said.
Evelyn Childers, another North Kansas City resident, agreed.
“We want to promote North Kansas City as being a destination place,” she said.
Byron Spencer, also from North Kansas City, said he sees the streetcar as a great way to link the city with downtown Kansas City. He believes some young people now living in downtown condos or apartments might someday like to buy a house in North Kansas City but still use the streetcar to get to downtown amenities.
“They’re liking the option to live car free,” he said of many young adults.
Participants Thursday night appeared to prefer an alignment along Swift Avenue rather than Burlington Street. They said Swift is more residential and pedestrian-friendly and geared to streetcar transit. But others pointed out that the streetcar would be more transformative for Burlington, which currently is fairly industrial and could benefit from new retail and residential development.
A few people in the audience said they thought it would be better to pay the local cost of the project through a sales tax rather than a property tax. Some people worried about increasing the tax burden on North Kansas City’s fixed-income residents.
Regarding the daunting cost, Kansas City Councilman Russ Johnson said there’s a chance the state of Missouri could help. He said the state has recently paid off a long-term general obligation bond package and could possibly issue another $1 billion in general obligation bonds, with some of that money going for urban transit. The Missouri Legislature would have to approve such a program.
Transportation supporters are also trying to get a 10-year, one-cent sales tax on a statewide ballot to help rebuild the state’s aging roads and bridges. Kansas City leaders have said they would push hard to make some of that money available for mass transit, including streetcars.
To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.