Leaders on Kansas City’s east side ambivalent about streetcar line

12/31/1840 2:00 PM

06/05/2014 1:24 PM

Kansas City devised an East Side strategy for bolstering support for its streetcar expansion, but so far it may not be working.

The first step toward extending streetcar routes will appear on the Aug. 5 ballot, and lines to the East Side, along Independence Avenue and Linwood Boulevard, were included in part to attract support from residents of that long-neglected part of town.

If the new streetcar taxing district is approved in August, it could pave the way for one of the biggest East Side economic development and infrastructure investments in the city’s history.

Still, the plan is being met by ambivalence and concern more than excitement among key African-American civic leaders, especially over whether the streetcar benefits will outweigh the tax increases needed to help pay for the project.

“I think for the most part we’re torn on this particular matter,” said the Rev. Wallace Hartsfield II, pastor of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, located on the proposed Linwood Avenue route just west of Prospect Avenue. “We tend to be leery of it.”

Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, applauded Mayor Sly James and the City Council for trying to revitalize the urban core. But she questioned whether streetcars are the best tool and worried about imposing a possible 1-cent sales tax increase on low-income residents who can least afford it.

“There is concern about it and lots of doubt about it,” Grant said.

James is well aware of the second-guessing but is emphatic that streetcars can help jump-start the development that the urban core needs after decades of disinvestment.

“Yes, it might cost something, but the bottom line is, there’s been no economic development there for a long time. We’re trying to bring some,” he said.

“What I’m asking the people of the East Side to do is work with us to bring you the development that you have asked for and that we are now very hard trying to make sure you get. But there is nothing for free.”

The August ballot question is unusual in that it will not be voted on citywide but will encompass many neighborhoods south of the Missouri River. Voters living within the proposed taxing district will be asked to approve the geographic boundaries from State Line Road east to Interstate 435 and from the Missouri River south to about 51st Street between State Line and the Paseo. The boundary then jogs south to Gregory Boulevard, and east along Gregory to I-435.

Brookside, where considerable streetcar opposition surfaced earlier this year, is no longer a part of the proposed district.

If the district is approved, specific tax increases would be put before voters in November. The maximum tax increase would be a 1-cent sales tax within the district, plus property tax assessments for properties within a third of a mile of the proposed extensions.

Those extensions include:

A 3.6-mile extension along Main Street to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, with a projected construction cost of $212 million (in 2019 dollars, which is the earliest it might be built).

A 2.2-mile extension along Independence Avenue to Benton Avenue, at a projected cost of $142.5 million.

A 1.8-mile extension along Linwood Boulevard to Prospect Avenue, at a projected cost of $117 million.

The plan also includes a 9-mile Prospect Avenue MAX rapid bus line, south to 75th Street, at a projected cost of $43 million.

Planners say including the eastern extensions and the Prospect MAX enhance the entire project’s chances of getting federal funds, because of the potential to greatly enhance an underserved area. The financing is predicated on the federal government contributing about 50 percent of the projected $515 million cost.

City officials want to move expeditiously while a supportive Obama administration is still in office.

“We won’t collect a dime until we know that the federal money is there,” James said. “If the federal money does not materialize, then the game is over.”

City officials already knew they had a tough sell on the East Side, but they were taken aback when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon decided May 23 to put a three-quarter-cent statewide highway and transit sales tax on the same August ballot.

Some people have speculated that putting both the statewide sales tax and the streetcar taxing district on the same ballot might doom both. The council even discussed last week whether to move the streetcar ballot question to a different election date, possibly November or later.

But James said that, in the end, they decided to leave the streetcar boundary question on in August and campaign hard for it to pass.

Among the three streetcar extensions, the Main Street route appears to have the most motivated support. Councilwoman Jan Marcason said she went to a recent meeting of about 30 neighborhood leaders from the 4th District and was encouraged by the vocal outpouring for the ballot proposal.

Keith Spare, president of the South Plaza Neighborhood Association, was one of the leaders present.

“Our neighborhood has been very enthusiastic for the expansion of transit for probably 10 years,” he said, adding that he thinks East Side residents will also soon realize the project’s potential.

Indeed, some supporters are pinning their hopes on the fact that midtown and Country Club Plaza area residents have consistently voted for sales tax increases for rail transit. If that part of the taxing district has a heavy positive turnout, it could offset a possibly negative but low turnout in the east.

And some eastern neighborhoods are supportive, said Margaret May, executive director of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council.

“We’re eager to have it,” May said, adding that 35 percent of Ivanhoe residents rely on public transportation.

She said residents also are hopeful that the streetcar can spur more commercial activity along Linwood.

Dwayne Williams, president and CEO of the 12th Street Heritage Development Corporation, said the people he talks to are conflicted over the proposal.

“I think people are getting excited about something coming to the East Side,” he said. “I still think it’s going to be a tough sell from a tax perspective.”

He said urban-core residents have often supported the city’s tax increase proposals but at this point don’t think they’ve reaped sufficient fruits of that support.

Freedom Inc., an African-American political club, will invite supporters and opponents to debate the issue this month before taking a position, said Gayle Holliday, who is part of Freedom’s leadership team.

“Most of us are being cautious and waiting until there’s a presentation,” she said.

Some Freedom members are asking for examples of African-American neighborhoods in other cities that were revitalized by streetcars. Cities like Portland, Ore., and Seattle, early adopters of modern streetcars, used them to revitalize downtown and industrial/warehouse areas, but they don’t have large African-American urban-core populations.

Hartsfield said that in the cities he’s familiar with, streetcars alone don’t transform depressed areas but do so only when combined with other city incentives, business growth and infrastructure support.

“Our question is, what is it going to cost, and what commitments to infrastructure are going to take place to actually help this work out?” he asked.

Supporters will have to work hard to educate voters this summer, acknowledged Dover Strategy Group political consultant Larry Jacob, who will assist with the upcoming campaign. Jacob said he’s well aware of the East Side skepticism.

“There are historical concerns,” he said.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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