Streetcars and an airport remake: What’s in it for Kansas City's voters?

01/28/2014 12:09 AM

01/28/2014 5:55 AM

It looks like Kansas City is heading toward votes, perhaps soon, on expanding the streetcar system and remaking the airport.

We don’t know, at this point, if either proposal is a good idea. Both are likely to be a tough sell with voters, because of what we might call the “what’s in it for me?” syndrome.

Let’s take the streetcar, for example. A rail transit spur has identifiable benefits for those near its path — cheaper travel, more development, higher property values.

But the benefits of rail transit fade the farther one travels from the line. Voters who don’t live near the proposed streetcar line have less direct incentive to support the project, so they vote no.

Rail can be sold as a way to reduce congestion and pollution — Denver has successfully used that approach. Rail can be a job creator, helping the local economy. And a substantial federal investment can reduce the local financial pain.

But federal money may now be hard to find. Congestion and pollution aren’t as bad here as in Denver. The local economy is unlikely to get a major bump from the streetcar.

So convincing voters to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for a transit system they may never use will be a challenge.

The airport project faces a similar hurdle. A new terminal wouldn’t cost most Kansas Citians anything; users would pay the cost — but many Kansas Citians never use the airport. Selling those voters on a project that won’t directly affect them will also be difficult.

Again, look for the indirect approach: A new airport could mean jobs, economic development, civic pride.

It could work. Kansas Citians have shown they can look past the “what’s in it for me?” question. They’ve endorsed taxes for parks, the stadiums and health care for the poor, even if they don’t picnic, watch a game or need subsidies when they get sick.

But that attitude is clearly under pressure. State legislators in both states have rejected expanded Medicaid largely because it won’t help most of their constituents. In fact, overall opposition to Obamacare can largely be attributed to the “what’s in it for me?” syndrome.

We shouldn’t be surprised. With incomes stretched, jobs hard to find and costs going up, voters are asking for more proof that their taxes are actually buying something they want and need.

So pick your metaphor: the streetcar faces an uphill challenge, or the airport project faces crosswinds. City leaders face one of the most difficult tasks in today’s politics — changing “what’s in it for me?” into “we’re all in this together.”


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