Kansas City Mayor Sly James and other city leaders got a clear takeaway from Tuesday’s failed streetcar vote: Another try at expansion will probably have to wait until downtown’s two-mile starter route is open and proves itself — possibly in 2016.
Sixty percent of voters torpedoed a streetcar taxing district plan Tuesday.
“Some of us believe that once we get the starter line up and running, people will love it and will be clamoring for extension,” Councilman Ed Ford said Wednesday, echoing comments by James and others.
That’s been the pattern in every major city where streetcars are now successful, said Councilman Dick Davis, who first became involved with Kansas City transit planning in 1974.
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“In other cities, the mood changes the day it opens, and then people are battling to create more of this,” Davis said. “To my knowledge, not a single city has stopped. You build the first line, and the demand for it accelerates.”
Installation of rail lines from River Market to Union Station is just beginning. Construction should be finished in late summer 2015, but then there will be months of testing before passengers can get on board.
An analysis of Tuesday’s election results shows there may be an appetite for expansion from downtown to the Country Club Plaza, but certainly not east of Troost Avenue, where city leaders had hoped to give the east side of the city a huge economic boost.
The city wanted voter support for extensions south on Main Street to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, along Independence Avenue and Linwood Boulevard, plus a MAX rapid bus line on Prospect Avenue.
Precinct results show that voters west of Troost generally approved the expansion by a 55 to 45 percent margin, according to veteran campaign consultant Steve Glorioso, who worked for the pro streetcar campaign. Turnout west of Troost was about 28 percent.
But in the Northeast neighborhoods and primarily African-American precincts east of Troost, Glorioso said, the proposal got crushed, with 70 percent or more opposed. Turnout was low, roughly 12 percent, but that geographic area had more voters than west of Troost.
The end result: 8,602 votes against versus 5,657 votes for the plan, in unofficial returns.
“Had this election only been to extend the starter line up Main to UMKC, it would have passed,” Glorioso said.
That would have involved a smaller taxing district and voters just west of Troost. But city officials had wanted to provide an economic and social justice benefit to the eastern part of the city. And James and Councilman Russ Johnson had argued that Kansas City should seize the moment while the Obama administration looked favorably on its plan.
The City Council hoped voters would approve local funding necessary to qualify for a huge federal matching grant to build the $515 million expansion project. But opponents argued the cost was too high, the taxes too burdensome and buses were the better way to go.
Now the window of opportunity with the Obama administration is probably over, supporters agreed Wednesday.
James said it’s vitally important that the system grow and knit urban core neighborhoods to downtown, but he worries somewhat about getting major federal funding after Obama leaves office.
“The federal government is extremely unpredictable and volatile so we don’t know what’s going to happen after that election,” he said.
Davis is more optimistic. He said the federal government has supported rail transit throughout the country since 1981, and he doesn’t expect that to change with a new administration. He said Kansas City just has to get its local act together.
“If we can ever accomplish what we did with the downtown section, show the local capability, we’ll be getting a high priority for federal funding to match it,” he predicted.
He suggested a logical next step is to go south on Main Street.
Johnson, who championed the downtown starter route, said it’s time to pause, look closely at the election results and figure out which other neighborhoods might want to connect to downtown and are willing to tax themselves to do that.
He said that just as downtown was a short segment, maybe the next phase will be too.
“I think smaller is probably the most likely path,” he said. “Smaller moves rather than big leaps.”
Streetcar opponent Dan Coffey said the vote on expansion could not have been any more emphatic, and there’s no need to try again.
“We don’t want it,” he said.
Coffey said the downtown route may prove popular in the beginning.
“I think everybody will go down there to ride it once or twice,” he said, but he doubted it will be enough to generate strong support for expansion.
The City Council had already approved spending $8 million to do advanced engineering on the eight potential miles of streetcar, and now much of that work may not be needed with the voter rejection.
Johnson said the city hasn’t spent much of that money and can get out of those contracts, but it will be up to the City Council in the coming weeks and months to decide how to proceed. He said some of the planning may still be useful with a smaller expansion project.
City spokesman Chris Hernandez said public works staffers will give a status report in a few weeks to the City Council, including how much money has been spent, the work done so far and a series of options for the council to consider.
The vote Tuesday means the City Council will not go to voters in November seeking specific sales and property tax increases for streetcar expansion. But the November ballot will still include a transit measure.
That’s because the Missouri Supreme Court has ordered the council to put a version of activist Clay Chastain’s ballot initiative before voters. Chastain wants voters to approve a 3/8-cent sales tax increase for a massive light rail and streetcar plan.
Chastain says the council should put his light rail initiative on the ballot as he wrote it. The council says that, according to the Supreme Court order, all it has to put on the ballot are the proposed tax increases, without any stated “light rail” purpose.
A final version of that ballot language will be approved later this month.
Chastain said he will campaign hard for his plan, while City Council members say they will oppose it as unrealistic and unworkable, as they have in the past.
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