Yael T. Abouhalkah

Bigger streetcar system: A boon or bane for KC?

Updated: 2014-01-16T02:25:58Z

By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH

The Kansas City Star

Detractors of Kansas City’s new downtown streetcar line say it’s The Little Toy Train That Can’t.

It can’t spur redevelopment, come in on budget or really attract that many more transit riders.

Enthusiastic streetcar supporters have opposite views and are eager for the system to start operating in about two years.

I’m much more on the pro side of this argument. Downtown housing and hotel projects along or near the line have been announced recently. City officials have a large contingency fund to help pay for the project. And there’s no doubt streetcars will woo riders better than buses do.

Now all we have to do is wait a couple of years to see which side has the best prognosticating powers, right?

Wrong.

Most Kansas Citians at this point aren’t fully aware that the $100 million downtown line could quickly morph into a much larger, $600 million or more project later this year.

And if that happens — if the City Council and voters ultimately support an expanded streetcar system along Main Street, Independence Avenue and Linwood Boulevard or 31st Street — the importance of this form of transit to Kansas City’s future would grow dramatically.

An extended system in place by 2019 or so could:

• Span Troost Avenue, better connecting black and white Kansas City.

• Reinvigorate Main Street and nearby neighborhoods from Union Station to past the Country Club Plaza.

• Attract hundreds of millions in private investment along and near Independence and Linwood/31 Street.

One more thing: Expansion plans also could become a huge failure if voters reject the financing ideas now being worked on at City Hall, or if the bigger system doesn’t eventually attract matching federal funds.

At a meeting today, council members are scheduled to continue reviewing plans to make the system bigger. Consultants already have produced a 400-page report that details the best routes for laying eight to 10 miles or possibly more of new track.

The reports contain significant data. Not all of it is rosy. The figures, for example, suggest it would make less sense from financial and development points of view to extend the system along 12th or 18th streets. But the reports correctly put the potential for economic redevelopment at the top of the list of priorities.

Right now, a relatively small group of Kansas Citians is pumped up about the potential for streetcars to transform Kansas City. However, it’s unclear how widely that excitement is shared.

True, a good number of residents in the Northeast, Midtown and Plaza areas have shown up at meetings to discuss what they want from streetcars.

Here’s the big unknown: Would they really be willing at an election, possibly this November, to approve up to a one-cent sales tax increase charged at nearby stores and restaurants to help pay for a larger system? And would they support higher levies on property owners near the line?

Voters did endorse similar funding streams for downtown’s two-mile line. But that was in a condensed area with few voters. By contrast, tens of thousands of people could go to the polls to decide the fate of expansion.

The elected officials, business leaders and others who want a bigger system are going to have to pick up more converts while getting ready to persuade voters to support it — especially when streetcars won’t be rolling down Main any time soon.

The feel-good stories that predominate now about the potential value of the streetcars would go only so far in attracting support in crucial 2014 elections.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/YaelTAbouhalkah.

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