Kansas City streetcar plan stopped in its tracks

08/05/2014 8:49 PM

08/06/2014 1:55 PM

It’s back to the drawing board for Kansas City’s streetcar supporters.

Voters hit the brakes Tuesday on an ambitious plan to expand streetcars past downtown. They trounced a new streetcar taxing district, with 60 percent voting against it in unofficial final returns.

“I think people began to realize this was a boondoggle,” said Sherry DeJanes, a Kansas City lawyer who led the organized opposition to the city’s streetcar proposal. “Finally, the city can get back to the business it should have been doing and attend to the things that are important.”

DeJanes said the taxes proposed for the streetcar district were too high and imposed too great a burden on low-income residents.

Mayor Sly James lamented the defeat but said the city can’t just give up on its dreams of propelling streetcars past downtown.

“We’re not going to let the starter line be the end of the line for this thing,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to think that.”

The result means Kansas City will not seek voter approval in November for specific sales and property tax increases to help pay the local share of a $515 million transit plan. And it calls into question whether, or how soon, Kansas City can build a broader streetcar system beyond the two-mile starter route.

James conceded he had thought this plan would win at the ballot box and he wasn’t sure what Plan B would be, or whether it will emerge from city officials or from a citizen-led initiative.

“It’s very possible either way, but we’re not going to just roll over and let it go,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to look for options to get the job done.”

Streetcar planners had hoped to expand the starter route farther south on Main Street to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, east on Independence Avenue to Benton Boulevard and east on Linwood Boulevard to Prospect Avenue. The plan also called for establishing a MAX rapid bus line on Prospect Avenue south to 75th Street.

The vote was a big loss for James and other city leaders, who had campaigned hard for the expansion, saying Kansas City is years behind other cities in rail transit and needs to catch up.

James and others had said that now was the best time to go big with streetcars because the Obama administration looks favorably on Kansas City’s streetcar potential. Kansas City advocates had hoped to lock in the local funding and then seek $250 million in federal dollars to make the plan a reality. The future of federal funds for streetcars under a different administration after 2016 is far from certain.

Supporters also had argued that this would be one of the biggest economic investments ever on the East Side. They had predicted streetcars would lure residential and commercial developers to Independence Avenue and Linwood Boulevard in ways that other efforts to stimulate economic progress there have failed.

But opponents doubted the economic development projections and countered that the plan was far too expensive. They said it was unfair to struggling East Side residents who would pay the tax but live too far from the streetcar to use it. The plan had contemplated a 1-cent sales tax increase within the district, plus special assessments for properties closest to the proposed routes.

Opponents also said buses were a far cheaper transit option and much more flexible to change as circumstances warrant.

Terrence Nash, a long-time neighborhood activist, said Kansas City just isn’t dense enough to support streetcars and needs to concentrate on improving the bus system. “I believe they should have the Prospect MAX,” he said, adding that bsic services should be the priority, rather than “trophy projects.”

Tuesday’s election also saw defeat for a proposed three-quarter-cent statewide sales tax to improve state highways, bridges and transit. If the state tax had passed, Kansas City leaders were anticipating $144 million for the streetcar and Prospect MAX, but now neither the local nor state transportation plans will move forward anytime soon.

Streetcar opponents prevailed Tuesday despite being outspent more than two to one in the campaign. The pro-streetcar campaign, called Connect KC, raised more than $387,000, with large contributions from the downtown Marriott, Burns & McDonnell and other major construction and engineering firms, law firms and development boosters.

The anti-streetcar campaign, called SmartKC, raised about $139,000, including $50,000 from mortgage banker James Nutter Sr. and $75,700 from a secretive non-profit group called Missourians for Responsible Government that does not disclose its donors. The African-American political club Freedom Inc. also came out staunchly against the streetcar plan.

While voters said no Tuesday to streetcars, they said yes to renewal of the quarter-cent sales tax for the Fire Department. The citywide ballot measure passed, 65 percent to 35 percent.

The tax, which has been in effect since 2002, raises about $18.5 million per year, more than 10 percent of the department’s $140 million budget. Supporters said renewal for another 20 years would allow the department to retain about 100 firefighters whose salaries are paid with the tax, plus do upgrades to fire trucks and other fleet vehicles.

“We’re very happy that the voters supported the fire department once again, as we know this is not additional revenue coming into the fire department,” said Fire Chief Paul Berardi. “We are pleased to better now be able to plan for the future.”

Berardi and Michael Cambiano, president of Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, agreed a top priority will be replacing fire apparatus and ambulances as needed.

Cambiano said the vote will “allow us to enact our strategic plan and take the Fire Deparment to the next level.” He said that means deploying firefighters and emergency medical responders in underserved areas at the north and south ends of the city.

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

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