Kansas City Mayor Sly James will officially break ground Thursday morning on the downtown streetcar project. A few hours later, he — and all of us — will probably find out whether the city is still in the running for the 2016 Republican National Convention.
The timing is a coincidence, but the two events are related.
Mass transit is just one part of a city’s bid for a convention, but it’s an important part. Republicans still are grumbling about inconvenient bus rides in Tampa, Fla., in 2012. A Columbus, Ohio, official recently said the GOP may have dropped his city from the 2016 contest because it lacked rail transit.
Kansas City trails all but one of its convention competitors when it comes to commuter rail systems. Three of those cities — Denver, Dallas and Cleveland — have light rail. Las Vegas has monorail.
Cincinnati, like Kansas City, is building a downtown streetcar system. While construction is well underway there, operation isn’t expected to begin until 2016, after Kansas City’s system is up and running.
It isn’t clear what impact Kansas City’s less-than-robust transit picture will have on its convention bid. The GOP has other considerations: convenient hotel rooms, financing, entertainment venues.
If Kansas City is dropped from convention contention, though, it’s likely streetcar boosters will point to the lack of rail transit as a reason.
That, in turn, will make the GOP’s decision a central issue in the coming election over extending the streetcar line. Here’s why.
Rail transit clearly boosts economic development in some places. Shops and housing almost always pop up around rail transit lines.
But some of those projects may just be relocation: a business leaves one neighborhood to be closer to a rail line. When that happens, taxpayers who live far from the line essentially subsidize transportation for those near it — while accelerating the decline of their own neighborhoods.
The only way to address that concern is to argue everyone benefits from fixed-rail transit, by providing jobs and visitors.
Like, say, visitors from a national political convention.
It’s a familiar claim. You heard a similar argument during the campaigns to renovate Bartle Hall, the Sprint Center and the Truman Sports Complex. You’ll hear it on the airport. Someday, perhaps, a convention hotel.
We don’t know what the GOP’s site selection committee will decide Thursday. If we’re dropped from the list, though, the streetcar campaign will have the material for its first commercial.