The Kansas City Council on Thursday unanimously and enthusiastically endorsed a plan to extend the downtown streetcar starter route, paving the way for a court hearing and possible elections to help pay the cost.
“This is a good day,” Councilman Jim Glover said of the decision. “We’ve worked a long time to get to this point.”
Glover and other council members said the streetcar expansion is essential to restoring the central city’s economic vitality and connectivity. Glover also pointed out that the cost, while expensive, is still less than the $600 million for the new Gateway highway interchange improvements in southern Johnson County.
The council approved a plan to extend the streetcar line by about 8 miles. Extensions would run on Independence Avenue to Benton Boulevard, on Linwood Boulevard to Prospect Avenue, and south on Main Street to the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
The plan also envisions adding 9 miles of bus rapid transit MAX from downtown along 12th Street and then south on Prospect Avenue to 85th Street.
The cost of the streetcar extension would be about $472 million (in 2019 dollars, when construction might begin). The $43 million Prospect Max would boost the total project cost to about $515 million.
The city anticipates getting close to half that cost, about $250 million, from the federal government, although officials acknowledged that’s certainly not guaranteed. Transportation consultant Dave Vozzolo, with HDR Inc., said the federal transit authority is encouraging a new approach, with funding for interconnected bus and rail corridors.
“It’s perfect for this type of project,” he said of Kansas City’s proposal.
Councilman Russ Johnson said Kansas City won’t have any shot at federal funds if it doesn’t get its local dollars approved.
That would require establishing a new streetcar taxing district far beyond the current downtown district. The proposed boundaries would begin just south of the Missouri River and stretch from State Line east to Interstate 435. The southern boundary would be about 51st Street from State Line to the Paseo, then south to Gregory Boulevard and east to Interstate 435.
A Jackson County Circuit Court hearing is scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday to consider those district boundaries, which will be amended from an earlier, bigger district proposal. Originally, Brookside and Waldo were included in the proposed streetcar district boundaries, but extending the streetcar that far proved to be far too expensive and there was some community resistance.
If the court approves, the city hopes to ask voters within the revised boundaries to approve the new district at an August election. Voters would then be asked at a November election to approve a 1 cent sales tax increase within the district, plus special property tax assessments within 1/3 mile of the proposed routes. The taxes would not take effect until the federal funding was in place.
Most residents at Thursday’s council discussion praised the plan and said they would be willing to tax themselves to make it a reality.
“I’m 100 percent in favor of paying that … for the betterment of the city,” said Andrew Ray, who lives and owns property in Pendleton Heights and who would have to pay the sales and property tax increases.
But Marsha Lerenberger, who lives near Brookside, which is not in the proposed taxing district, wondered why the city doesn’t focus on a better bus system at a fraction of the cost.
“The city has not made a good case” for why streetcars deserve all this investment, she said.