Kansas City Council members were divided Thursday on whether now is the right time to pursue streetcar expansion, so soon after the downtown starter line opened.
“We have much greater needs in the city,” said 2nd District at-large Councilwoman Teresa Loar, who argued the focus should instead be on basic infrastructure needs that may require a big bond vote next year.
Her 2nd District colleague Dan Fowler agreed, saying, “I think the streetcar is very premature to be doing this. It’s hard to judge what the overall success is going to be. In a year or two, maybe we can see.”
They were reacting to a grass-roots petition filed in Jackson County Circuit Court, seeking permission to extend the existing 2.2-mile, $100 million streetcar line south about 3.75 miles along Main Street to 51st Street and Brookside Boulevard.
The effort is being led by members of the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance, including influential business leaders like Gib Kerr of Cushman Wakefield, a real estate firm.
“We need to keep moving,” said Jay Tomlinson, owner of Helix Architecture + Design and a prime mover behind the streetcar extension effort. He said it would build on the progress already occurring along the 2.2-mile streetcar line, which opened just a month ago between the River Market and Union Station.
A Jackson County circuit judge is expected to schedule a hearing soon on the proposed expanded streetcar taxing district to help pay for the $227 million project. A lot more has to happen, including several elections, but if successful, the expanded streetcar system could possibly open in 2022.
The streetcar taxing district boundaries are drawn in the one part of Kansas City, on and near the Main Street corridor, where voters have consistently endorsed higher taxes for rail transit.
If those voters again approved, it would be up to the city to design and construct the system and to apply for federal funding, so that would need City Council buy-in.
Mayor Sly James was out of town Thursday and in a statement was noncommittal.
“This is the beginning of a long, thoughtful conversation,” James said. The mayor has consistently supported the idea of streetcar expansion but added many details need to be solidified.
Fourth District at-large Councilwoman Katheryn Shields suggested streetcar expansion advocates should have waited a few more months to assess the existing streetcar’s track record. Fourth District Councilwoman Jolie Justus agreed that might have been smart politically.
But Justus, who represents the district where the expansion would occur, acknowledged that getting rail in the ground takes years, so she understood people wanting to jump-start the process.
Most council members said they need more information before they make up their minds whether to support this campaign.
But no council member was enthusiastic about the latest plan from perennial petitioner Clay Chastain, who lives most of the time in Virginia.
Chastain plans to turn in petitions Friday seeking a November vote on a sales tax increase to help fund a $2 billion light-rail project from the airport to south Kansas City.
“I think it’s another Clay Chastain dream,” said Fowler. “It’s somebody trying to foist something on us who doesn’t live here.”