Fifty-seven years after streetcars stopped running in Kansas City, an enthusiastic crowd gathered under sunny skies Thursday for the official groundbreaking to bring streetcars back to downtown.
The event came on the same day the City Council approved spending $8 million to plan the next 8 miles of streetcar extensions. Council members said the planning needs to start now — before the starter route is even built and before elections later this year to approve funding for future phases.
“It’s a day that we get on board with a new, dynamic mindset,” Mayor Sly James said as a nearby backhoe prepared to dig into the asphalt in the middle of Main Street just south of Truman Road. The 2.2-mile downtown streetcar route will run from River Market to near Union Station, and construction should be completed in late 2015.
Councilman Russ Johnson, who has championed the return of the streetcars to Kansas City, said they are catalysts for private investment and development virtually everywhere they are built, and predicted the same will be true here.
But skeptics persist, including Patrick Tuohey of the Show-Me Institute free-market think tank, who was at the groundbreaking. Tuohey, who lives in Kansas City, argued that the MAX bus rapid transit system is more efficient and flexible than streetcars will ever be, and he questioned whether development occurs because of streetcars or because of tax incentives.
Thursday’s groundbreaking marked the official start of city streetcar work, beginning with water main replacements. Actual rail construction begins later this summer. But Main Street has already been torn up for months as private utility companies relocate their cables and other underground assets.
After Thursday’s groundbreaking, the City Council voted 10-1 in favor of an agreement with HDR Engineering for about $3.7 million to plan an extension along Main Street, south from Union Station to about 51st Street. It also voted 10-1 for a $4.3 million agreement with Burns & McDonnell to plan extensions east of downtown along Independence Avenue and Linwood Boulevard. Councilman Ed Ford was the lone dissenter.
Johnson and others said the planning needs to occur now, although voters have not yet approved those streetcar extensions. Voters will have their say in elections later this year.
A Jackson County circuit judge has just authorized an election Aug. 5 for much of the area south of the Missouri River. Residents living within the proposed boundaries of a special streetcar taxing district will be asked to approve the new district. If the district is approved, residents will be asked in November to vote on specific tax increases to help pay for the streetcar expansion.
The proposal has significant support from neighborhoods around the proposed extensions, but it has also sparked vehement criticism from many residents who think the proposed taxes are excessive and overly burdensome.
So doubts remain over how successful the election outcomes will be, and how quickly Kansas City will have the local funds needed for any future streetcar project.
Despite the election uncertainty, Johnson said it’s prudent to proceed with the planning. Even if voters defeat the latest proposal, he said, the city at some point will almost inevitably proceed with some addition to the downtown streetcar system.
“It’s all going to be valid,” Johnson said.
Ralph Davis, Kansas City engineering service manager, said the city frequently spends money to plan for infrastructure projects before the money to construct them is approved.
“A lot of times you work ahead,” he said, adding that if this year’s vote on streetcar extensions is positive, people will expect actual work to occur in a timely manner.
Still, Councilman Ford voted against authorizing the spending now for the Phase II streetcar planning. He said he fully supports expanding the streetcar system but would prefer to know the November election outcome before the city spends that money, to make sure the public is on board as well.
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