Kansas City streetcar supporters urged a Jackson County judge Thursday to keep the momentum going, while critics urged the court to halt streetcar expansion in its tracks.
Jackson County Circuit Judge J. Dale Youngs held a hearing to determine the legality of a proposed transportation taxing district that could eventually lead to expanding the downtown streetcar south to the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Although the question before the judge was fairly narrow — whether a petition calling for the district’s formation is legal — the hearing brought out all sorts of comments about the merits or drawbacks of streetcar expansion. Youngs’ ruling will come later, and even if he finds the petition process is legal, it just sets the stage for future elections where some Kansas City voters will decide the streetcar’s future.
“If we don’t have the vote, then the voice of the people will be stifled,” testified Fred Gambino, a resident who lives in the starter streetcar route’s special taxing district and supports expansion.
But Lee Derrough, longtime civic leader and past president of Hunt Midwest Enterprises, told the court that the small electorate used to establish the downtown streetcar taxing district was one of the most “nefarious” and “unconscionable” election processes he’s ever seen. Any streetcar expansion, he said, should be put to a citywide vote.
The hearing was scheduled for all day Thursday but wrapped up before noon, after about three dozen people testified. Two-thirds of those who signed in were supportive while one-third were opposed.
The court hearing was prompted by a petition filed by 50 residents seeking to expand the streetcar system, which currently runs from River Market to Union Station. Expansion would take the streetcar another 3.75 miles south on Main Street to 51st and Brookside Boulevard, near the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus.
The expanded system would cost an estimated $227 million to build, and supporters are counting on about half that money coming from the federal government. The local match would be funded with a combination of a 1-cent sales tax within a set district boundary and property tax assessments for properties within one-third mile of the route. Those property owners would be taxed for 25 years because they would be expected to garner the greatest benefits from proximity to the streetcar.
Steve Lightstone is one of those residents who would pay the increased property tax, which he said would be “a very unfair tax for residential owners.”
Other critics said Kansas City should concentrate on building a regional transit system focused on buses, which are a cheaper transportation mode.
But downtown architect Jay Tomlinson said streetcar expansion comes down to a decision about whether Kansas City wants to be progressive and competitive with other cities, or regressive. He said those testifying against the streetcar were all older adults and not millennials.
“This is a conversation about what kind of city we want to have for our kids and grandkids,” he said.
If Youngs rules the proposed transportation district is legal, the actual streetcar expansion project is still a long way from reality. His ruling would allow for a mail-in election for a segment of the Kansas City electorate on whether to approve the expanded streetcar taxing district boundaries.
But that proposed election timetable is changing to later dates. In fact, proponents said Thursday that the streetcar elections would be conducted later than originally expected. That delay is in response to City Council concerns that the streetcar issue would interfere with their own plans for a major infrastructure bond issue election in April 2017.
So now, the first streetcar mail-in election process would take place between May and July 2017. If voters approve the new streetcar district, an election would occur in September 2017 at polling places, to elect board members for the new taxing district. And finally, there would be another mail-in election between November 2017 and January 2018 to actually approve the taxes for the new streetcar district. Even if all those approvals occur, an expanded streetcar route isn’t expected to open until 2023 at the earliest.