As Kansas City’s downtown streetcar system approaches its one millionth ride, the cars are so crowded that the Streetcar Authority wants to buy two more vehicles and possibly expand the route north to Berkley Riverfront Park.
The authority voted Thursday to develop a financing plan to add two more streetcars to the four-vehicle fleet. Because each car is custom-made and the procurement process takes so long, they likely won’t arrive until 2019.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Streetcar Authority member Russ Johnson said Thursday, noting that the downtown streetcar starter route, from the River Market to Union Station, had been expected to average about 2,700 rides per day.
Instead, since it opened May 6, it has averaged about 6,600 rides per day — with Saturday ridership often exceeding 10,000 rides.
Johnson said this was not poor planning on the streetcar designers’ part, and 2,700 was a realistic expectation given the experience in other cities. But Kansas City has had some of the highest ridership, per mile, of any system in the country, with people flocking to ride the free streetcar to downtown venues and festivals throughout the summer.
“Route matters,” Johnson said. “There is something special going on in Kansas City.”
Even as the Streetcar Authority discussed new vehicle procurement Thursday, officials also talked about extending the starter route north to Riverfront Park, over the Grand Boulevard viaduct. They will conduct a feasibility study.
A big part of the downtown streetcar’s popularity is no doubt due to the fact that the ride is free of charge. But other cities, including Atlanta, started out with a free system and still didn’t have ridership numbers near Kansas City’s.
Kansas City Streetcar Authority executive director Tom Gerend said the Kansas City system originally had expected to mark its millionth ride next May. But it now expects to hit that mark early next month and is planning for that, although there won’t be a huge prize for a particular person.
“We are fast approaching the millionth-ride milestone,” Gerend said. Streetcar Authority spokeswoman Donna Mandelbaum said they can generally predict the day when it may occur and are starting to organize a celebration pegged to that timeframe.
The system measures rides with sensors. It averages about 4,800 rides on weekdays and Sundays, with much higher ridership on Saturdays. The Streetcar Authority originally had expected Sunday ridership to be low, requiring just two vehicles, allowing vehicle maintenance on the others. But it has had to press a third vehicle into service each Sunday, making the maintenance schedule more challenging.
While demand will almost surely drop during the winter months, Gerend and Johnson said they expect it to remain robust and even grow as more apartment units and hotels open along and near the route.
Gerend said new vehicles can cost about $3.5 million to $5 million apiece, depending on vehicle features and how the contract is structured. The city’s existing four vehicles are CAF Urbos 3 that were obtained in conjunction with a Cincinnati procurement.
Cincinnati has an option to purchase more vehicles, which it may not exercise, so Gerend said it’s possible Kansas City could exercise that option to reduce the cost, although all remains to be studied.
The authority voted to direct Gerend to develop a financing plan and to negotiate with CAF, Cincinnati and other interested parties.
The system can afford to purchase new vehicles. Revenues now well exceed expenses, Gerend said. The budget through April 30 showed sales taxes within the streetcar taxing district came in $1 million over the $4.4 million projection.
Total revenues, including property tax assessments, parking assessments and city payments, reached $11.1 million. Total expenses were $7.1 million. With prior year carryover, the system has a $7 million surplus.
If the system continues to bring in revenues well above expenses, it could eventually explore reducing the special property tax assessment within the district. But Gerend said it’s premature to consider doing that. He said additional vehicle procurement is one way to ensure the system continues to function well, which will protect ratepayers’ investment and property values.
While the Streetcar Authority is focused on ensuring the starter route’s success, it is also already looking at expansion possibilities.
To that end, the authority board authorized a feasibility study on the merits of extending the downtown route past the River Market about one-half to three-quarters of a mile to Berkley Riverfront Park. The Streetcar Authority, Kansas City Area Transportation Authority and Port KC would share the cost of the study, estimated at $225,000. Gerend said it may take a few months to hire the consultant, and the study itself should take about six months.
Gerend said Riverfront Park is an underused space, isolated from the rest of downtown and certainly not living up to its potential. He said the streetcar has already demonstrated an ability to connect disparate venues downtown and may serve that same purpose for the park.
The study would look at the possible route, cost and financial feasibility. It might not require a public election, if it could be part of a Port KC improvement district or get sufficient federal funds.
This study comes even as transit advocates are pushing to extend the downtown streetcar route south along Main Street to the University of Missouri-Kansas City. A judge on Wednesday approved an election process to gauge public support for that southbound expansion.
Gerend and authority member David Johnson said Thursday that the Riverfront Park feasibility study would not divert attention or focus from the southbound expansion. Gerend said all of these expansion phases take so long that it makes sense to start the planning now.