Kansas City’s big debate over streetcar extensions can move from the courtroom to the ballot box, a judge decided Thursday.
The ruling is a first step toward expanding the streetcar system, which currently is limited to a downtown starter line that should open late next year.
Jackson County Circuit Judge Marco Roldan concluded Thursday that the city’s petition for a new, expanded streetcar taxing district is not legally defective or unconstitutional and that the proposed taxing approach is not unjust or unreasonable.
The ruling, barring an appeal, appears to clear the way for an election Aug. 5.
“The city welcomes the judge’s ruling so that we can move ahead to the next steps, which is putting this decision about the future of Kansas City’s streetcar system in the hands of the voters,” city spokesman Chris Hernandez said. “It will now be a neighborhood decision, in which the people who live in the neighborhoods most directly affected by the streetcar expansion can decide for themselves.”
Mayor Sly James said Thursday’s decision “means we can move this conversation, and the future of transportation in Kansas City, forward.”
The mayor said he hopes “Kansas Citians will agree that the investment is worth the payoff. I’m particularly excited about the possibilities around this for the East Side.”
The new lines would run south from downtown on Main Street and east on Independence Avenue and Linwood Boulevard.
But many skeptics remain, and it may be a formidable challenge for city officials to convince low-income East Side residents and others that the streetcar will provide enough benefits to justify the higher sales and property taxes that are proposed.
Sherry DeJanes, an attorney representing streetcar opponents in Judge Roldan’s court, said Thursday she was considering further legal action on the ruling. But she will also be working with many others to fight the streetcar extensions at the ballot box.
“We have a lot of people that are getting ready to mobilize on the issue,” she said.
The proposed taxing district would begin south of the Missouri River and stretch from State Line east to Interstate 435. The southern boundary would be about 51st Street between State Line and the Paseo, and then south to Gregory Boulevard, then along Gregory to I-435.
Voters living within the proposed taxing district boundaries will be asked to approve the district in the August election. If approved, specific tax increases would be put before voters in November. If those taxes are approved, they would help pay for expanding the system.
Planners have said the extensions would add nearly 8 miles of track to the 2.2-mile downtown starter line. It would cost an estimated $472 million. The system would also include 9 miles of a Prospect Avenue MAX bus rapid transit line, from 75th Street north to 12th street, at a cost of $43 million. The total cost would be $515 million.
City officials think they can get the federal government to pay about half the cost, but first the city must come up with a way to raise half the money locally. The local taxes wouldn’t actually kick in until the federal money is identified.
The financing plan contemplates a 1-cent sales tax within the district boundaries, plus special assessments for properties within three to four blocks of the streetcar extensions. Those owners are deemed to get the greatest economic development benefit from the routes.
In his ruling, Roldan said he was persuaded by expert testimony that the streetcar benefits would include “increased property values, neighborhood stability, lower vacancy rates, increased interest in and enhanced pace of development ... and increased housing stock.”
He concluded that no property owner would face an undue tax. For example, the owner of a $1 million commercial property would pay an annual assessment of about $1,540.
Roldan also noted that he’s not the last word on this project.
“The public will have the ultimate say on whether this project moves forward, and individuals are free to fully participate in the political process,” he wrote.
While the city gears up for the Aug. 5 streetcar election, a competing transit proposal is still hovering in the background. Activist Clay Chastain is still trying to get his 2011 initiative petition on a Kansas City election ballot.
Chastain proposes a 3/8-cent citywide sales tax for 25 years to pay partial costs of a 22-mile light-rail line, a 19-mile commuter rail line and an 81/2 mile streetcar line. The City Council declined to put it on an election ballot, saying it didn’t raise enough money to cover the project costs and thus was unconstitutional.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in February that Chastain’s proposal was not unconstitutional because it merely raised money and did not require the city to actually build Chastain’s project. A Jackson County Circuit Court hearing is scheduled Monday to try to resolve what to do with Chastain’s plan.
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Starter line construction
Highlights of the current streetcar construction on the downtown starter line, running from River Market to near Union Station:
Private utility relocations are well underway, and water line relocations are scheduled to start this month. Actual rail construction will begin at the south end of the line, near Union Station, in mid- to late summer.
Construction and testing of the new streetcar system are scheduled for completion in late 2015.
For more information and regular updates about the downtown streetcar construction, go to kcstreetcar.org.