Streetcar opponents outnumber proponents at court hearing

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04/01/2014 6:09 PM

05/16/2014 1:01 PM

Streetcar opponents far outnumbered proponents Tuesday as the debate over the future of streetcars in Kansas City moved from City Hall to a Jackson County courtroom.

The public commentary came at the first of two hearings to determine the legality of a proposed new streetcar taxing district that could include a 1-cent sales tax increase and special assessments for people closest to the expanded streetcar lines. Tuesday’s hearing before Jackson County Circuit Judge Marco Roldan was to allow the public to have its say.

And by more than a two-to-one margin, residents argued that the streetcars would be too expensive, that the proposed tax increases to pay for them would be unfair and burdensome, and that the city should focus on buses and other basic services.

“It’s wasteful and ridiculous,” said Robin Green, one of 22 people who testified against a proposal that would add about eight miles of streetcar lines to the downtown starter route, along with a MAX bus rapid transit line along Prospect Avenue.

Dennis O’Neill echoed many others in arguing that the sales tax increase would disproportionately affect low-income residents who live too far from the planned streetcar lines to benefit from them.

“This is a real moral issue that this city has to face,” he said, adding that buses are far less expensive and can go closer to the people who need them.

To pay the local portion of the $515 million project, the City Council has unanimously supported creating a taxing district that 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 between State Line and the Paseo, and then south to Gregory Boulevard.

If the court decides the proposal is legal, the city hopes to ask voters within those boundaries to approve the new district at an August election. Voters would then be asked at a November election to approve the actual tax increases, which would not take effect until a huge federal matching grant is in place.

Nine people spoke out for the streetcar plan Tuesday, saying this debate isn’t about them but about future generations and boosting economic development in Kansas City. They said they would happily pay additional taxes for a great new transit amenity.

“It’s about options, and moving into the 21st century with the rest of the country,” said Linda Fleischman, who lives in the Northeast’s Pendleton Heights neighborhood.

Fleischman observed that most of the opponents Tuesday live in Brookside, which was in an earlier version of the proposed taxing district but which is now outside the boundaries.

She said those Brooksiders, who won’t be subject to the tax, don’t represent her view, and she’s willing to pay the additional cost. She said she knows a lot about the poor, the underserved and people with special needs, and thinks streetcars along Independence Avenue would benefit all of them with better transit.

Caleb-Michael Files, a University of Missouri-Kansas City student, said he and many members of his generation strongly support better transit, including streetcars.

“Cars are a hassle,” he said, adding that he and many of his peers have jettisoned their cars and the expense that goes with them.

Files and others suggested that to attract the best and brightest of the Millennium generation, Kansas City needs to add streetcars to the mix.

But the bulk of the arguments were against the plan. Among the points:

• Streetcars are far more expensive than buses. A nine-mile Prospect MAX bus is projected to cost $43 million, compared to $472 million for about eight miles of streetcars east on Independence Avenue and Linwood Boulevard and south on Main Street to UMKC.

• The special assessments would apply to properties within one-third mile of the streetcar routes. Opponents said that would constitute taxation without representation because all the voters within the district would get to decide on property tax assessments that would affect only about 15 percent of the voters.

• Unlike regular property taxes, the special assessments would affect churches and non-profits. Some people said that would impose an unfair burden on those organizations.

• Kansas City has big problems with its schools and basic infrastructure such as water and sewer lines, and that’s where city leaders should focus their attention.

While the testimony was overwhelmingly negative, it may not make much difference in court because the question before the judge is whether the proposed streetcar taxing district is legal under Missouri law. For that determination, the more weighty discussion is likely to occur at a judicial hearing beginning at 9 a.m. April 15, when the judge will take witness and expert testimony and hear legal arguments before making a ruling sometime after that.

Doug Stone, an attorney representing the city in the streetcar petition before the court, said Tuesday’s public hearing was an important part of the “community conversation” about streetcar expansion that needs to occur. But he said most of it was not directly relevant to the question before the judge, and he is confident the city’s plan comports with Missouri law.

Sherry DeJanes, an attorney representing the streetcar petition opponents, said that for the proposed taxing district to go forward, the judge must determine that it would not create an undue burden and would not be unjust and unfair. She will argue the city’s plan does not meet that requirement.

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