With glorious blue skies as a backdrop and a crowd of hundreds of people in front of him, Kansas City Mayor Sly James proclaimed the start of a new era of rail transit in the city Friday, with the grand opening of the Kansas City streetcar.
“This is our moment,” James said at the kickoff ceremony with about 800 people at Union Station. “This is one of the most significant milestones in this city in generations.”
James acknowledged the many city and federal partners who helped make the new $100 million, 2.2-mile streetcar starter line a reality and said it’s an example of the challenging, risky and historic projects that cities need to tackle to play in the big leagues.
“You have to be bold,” he said.
And at least throughout opening day Friday, a celebratory party atmosphere prevailed along the entire streetcar route. All four streetcar vehicles were pressed into service and were filled with diverse crowds of all ages and races. People generally seemed to be in a very positive mood.
“Who’s having a good time?” an operator called out on one ride, and he was answered by enthusiastic cheers.
Shops and restaurants appeared reasonably busy but weren’t packed in the afternoon, and some owners said it will take time to see whether the streetcar is a business game-changer or whether the novelty wears off.
The Streetcar Authority did not have an estimate of ridership as of Friday. When the system gets going in earnest, officials anticipated it would average about 2,700 daily riders.
While the streetcar opening went off without a hitch, a traffic crisis unfolded just a few blocks away. The Missouri Department of Transportation discovered that the Grand Boulevard Bridge over Interstate 670 needed an emergency closure and is now considering replacing that bridge. It would be the department’s responsibility, not the city’s, to deal with that replacement.
Regarding the streetcar, it’s hard to sum up decades of planning, election failures, legal setbacks, persistent work and progress, construction disruptions, and months of testing leading up to opening day.
But Tom Gerend, executive director of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority, offered words to put the whole crusade into perspective.
“This has been a long and winding road,” he said, recalling the concerted effort since 2011 to bring the streetcar project to fruition.
He said that thanks to the hard work of city planners and downtown residents and businesses, the city now has an amenity that will connect downtown’s many activity centers from Union Station to the River Market, while already generating significant new economic development.
Carolyn Flowers, acting administrator for the Federal Transit Administration, commended Kansas City for completing a simple and predictable streetcar route that will be user-friendly for both residents and visitors.
“I believe Kansas City will be a model with its vision and commitment,” she said.
Several groups from Cincinnati and Milwaukee were in Kansas City on Friday to check on the progress here, as they plan their own streetcar starter routes. Cincinnati’s opens later this year and Milwaukee’s in a few years.
Streetcar opening day was an emotional and sentimental project for those who remember the heyday of Kansas City streetcars, before the last car stopped in 1957.
Long before the speeches started, Chandra Guinn, 78, and her daughter Charleso Guinn, 51, came down to Union Station early Friday morning to get in line for one of the first public rides.
“I always loved it,” Chandra Guinn said, as she recalled riding the streetcar as a little girl from Kansas City, Kan., to Kansas City, Mo. She remembered when it cost 5 cents to ride, then 10 cents, then 15 cents.
She’s pleased to realize the new streetcar system is free to ride.
Also excited were 44 students in two fifth-grade classes from Academie Lafayette, who rode the bus from 63rd Street to Union Station.
“This is part of their civics lesson about what government does for us,” said Kara Werner, mother of 11-year-old Riley Werner.
She said the students couldn’t wait to hop on board. “They’re on cloud nine,” she said.
After all the speeches, it was time for people to ride, and long lines formed for the streetcars parked on rails just east of Union Station.
Streetcar Authority officials had anticipated using just three of the four vehicles for rides, leaving the fourth vehicle parked for people to explore inside. But seeing the crowds, they quickly jettisoned that plan and put all four into commission.
The impact on businesses wasn’t immediately evident. A beautiful day brought out lots of pedestrians, and outdoor cafes were busy, but other stores didn’t appear busier than normal.
Several city employees said they were looking forward to riding the streetcar regularly from City Hall to River Market for lunch. Jack Nguyen, owner of Nguyen Pho Grill in the River Market, said he had seen an uptick in lunch business Friday.
“I asked customers and they said they rode the streetcar down here,” Nguyen said, adding that that was why he chose to locate his restaurant at 500 Grand Blvd., right on the route.
Other businesses were taking a “wait and see” attitude toward the streetcar’s impact.
Nate Beam, a manager at Opera House Food and Coffee Emporium, 500 Walnut St., said there had been a trickle of new business Friday, but time will tell.
“It’s hard to say so far,” he said.
Kaldi’s Coffee at 12th and Main streets got into the opening day spirit with cookies decorated with a streetcar motif. Lead barista John Clinton said foot traffic there has increased since streetcar construction was completed a few months ago. While Friday’s business was decent, Clinton said he expected the streetcar to have a bigger impact on weekends, when visitors and tourists would be more inclined to ride.
Friday marked a milestone in one of Kansas City’s most difficult urban planning challenges.
Before World War II, Kansas City had one of the most robust streetcar systems in the country, but it shut down 59 years ago. The city pursued a number of transit studies from 1966 to 1996, followed by repeated citywide light rail elections that failed with voters or were unworkable.
Finally in 2009, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority suggested the city narrow its focus to a downtown starter route.
Organizers expect as many as 50,000 people to flock downtown over the entire weekend, not just for the streetcar opening, but for a host of other festivities and activities to commemorate progress in the entire downtown neighborhood. Streetcars were to carry passengers until 2 a.m. Saturday and resume at 7 a.m. Saturday.
Union Station is hosting a carnival, fireworks will be set off Saturday night at Liberty Memorial, and activities were planned at City Market, the Power & Light District and numerous other locations.
A schedule is available at www.timetoridekc.org, which also has information on street closures and parking restrictions.
After this weekend’s festivities, the real test will come, and Kansas City will find out how much appetite the community has for rail transit. Businesses along the route are watching to see how much it will bring new visitors and customers to their doors, and boosters are pondering whether and how to extend the system beyond downtown.