Elections are likely this year in a push for KC streetcar growth

01/16/2014 11:56 AM

01/16/2014 10:48 PM

Kansas City is gearing up for two elections later this year to help pay for expanding the streetcar system, even though construction hasn’t begun on the downtown starter line and new routes may be years away.

A City Council joint committee voted unanimously Thursday in favor of plans for a big new streetcar taxing district that would encompass much of the city south of the river. The full council votes next Thursday.

It’s crucial to move fast on this new district, supporters said, to provide the local funding that can give Kansas City an actual streetcar system rather than just a 2-mile downtown starter route.

“We need to start now,” attorney Doug Stone told finance and transportation committee members as he outlined a strategy to help pay for possibly 10 more miles of streetcar line by 2019 or 2020.

The proposed taxing district would run from State Line to Interstate 435 and from the Missouri River generally to 85th Street, and it would require two elections later this year.

If voters living within those boundaries approve the district’s creation in an August election and approve specific tax increases in a November election, Stone said, that could help set the stage for Kansas City to get substantial federal funding to make the streetcar system a reality.

Streetcar supporters would seek voter approval for a 1-cent sales tax increase within the new district, plus special property taxes for properties generally within about a half-mile of the actual streetcar lines. Those extensions aren’t yet sure but could be south along Main Street to Waldo, along Independence Avenue, and along 31st Street or Linwood Boulevard.

Councilman Russ Johnson agreed any tax increase could be a tough sell but said those elections will give residents within the district boundaries a clear choice.

“The question is very simple. Should we expand or not? Do you want to buy this?” Johnson said, adding that he believes Kansas City has a solid plan and expansion would promote economic development.

The district would also include a proposed new Prospect MAX bus line as part of the city’s strategy to expand its mass transit options.

The taxing district, Stone said, would replace the existing downtown transportation district that is helping to pay the costs of the starter line from River Market to Union Station. He said people within the downtown taxing boundaries would not be double-taxed if the new district is approved.

The elections for the downtown taxing district involved just a few hundred registered voters living downtown, but the 2014 elections would involve thousands of registered voters living south of the river.

Stone acknowledged the local funding share would not pay the full costs of the streetcar extensions, which could reach $400 million. He said the city will also aggressively seek federal funding and other funding sources, but it needs to get the ball rolling for the local funding first.

That’s why the funding elections need to be held in 2014, he said, even though the extensions might not be built until 2020. If the local taxes are approved, Stone said, the city has a good relationship with federal transportation officials in the current administration and will work with them in 2015 and 2016 on federal funding options.

Johnson agreed Kansas City should seize this opportunity.

“The mayor feels very strongly he has a very good working relationship with this secretary of transportation,” Johnson said. “I’ve never heard of an environment where Kansas City had such a close relationship with the department of transportation, and I think it would be wise for us to take advantage of this.”

If sufficient funding materializes, Stone said, the streetcar extensions could undergo advanced engineering planning in 2017-2018 and construction could possibly start in 2019.

He conceded the streetcar system is very expensive but argued it’s worth it from a mass transit and economic development standpoint.

“Is it a lot of money, heck yeah,” Stone said. “But so is a street, so is a highway, so is a bridge.”

No one spoke in opposition at the committee meeting. City Councilwoman Jan Marcason, finance committee chairwoman, said she’s also heard little opposition at the community meetings she’s attended. She said she’s optimistic voters will be supportive of the 1-cent sales tax and modest property assessments.

“They’ll be reassured that it’s a modest cost,” she said.

Linda Fleischman, who lives in the Pendleton Heights neighborhood near Independence Boulevard, told the council she personally doesn’t like paying higher taxes on anything. But she thinks it’s worth it to get streetcars.

“I embrace this,” she said.

The same goes for college students, said Caleb-Michael Files, chief of staff for the student government association senate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“We’re in resounding support for this,” Files said, noting that UMKC students truly want decent transit that would link their campus near the Country Club Plaza to downtown.

But others predict significant opposition.

Waldo resident Patrick Tuohey said Thursday he thinks the streetcar proposal is a big waste of money and, if the tax elections occur, he would vote no.

He said Kansas City residents repeatedly have voted against tax increases for rail projects, and he expects the same result this time.

Tuohey is Western Missouri field manager for the Show-Me Institute, a free market think-tank, and said he agrees with the institute’s position against costly investments in urban streetcars.

“We’ve got a bus system that is certainly cost effective and that is great at moving people around,” Tuohey said. “It’s more flexible than trains and certainly much more of a value.”

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