As a crucial April court hearing on streetcar expansion approaches, some Kansas City neighborhoods are rallying squarely behind the city’s plan –– while organized opposition is also intensifying.
It’s setting the stage for what could be a packed courtroom and fierce debate over how Kansas City will extend the streetcar system beyond the two-mile downtown starter route.
On April 1 and 2, Jackson County Circuit Judge Marco Roldan will consider the legality of creating an expanded streetcar taxing district that could extend from State Line Road on the west to Interstate 435 on the east, and from the Missouri River south to 85th Street.
Both supporters and opponents have told the court to expect a large crowd of people who will want to have their say.
If the court approves, voters in those boundaries would be asked to approve the district in August and then decide in November whether to impose a districtwide 1-cent sales tax, plus special assessments for properties within a half-mile of the streetcar routes.
Advocates say it’s crucial to build an additional eight to 10 miles of streetcar lines east and south from downtown, even if it requires a significant tax increase. They say there’s growing support for three streetcar extensions:
• East on Independence Avenue at least to Benton Boulevard.
• East along 31st Street or Linwood Boulevard at least to Prospect Avenue.
• Main Street south from Union Station at least to Brush Creek, and possibly as far south as 75th Street.
Brookside, which might be included in the Main Street extension, has become ground zero for the streetcar debate.
“This is an amenity that creates a city more like where I want to live,” said longtime neighborhood resident Richard Wetzel. “There are people who obviously don’t want more taxes. I’d pay it in a second.”
Oliver Burnette, another Brookside resident, isn’t thrilled about paying higher taxes but worries Kansas City will lose a generation of young people if it doesn’t provide better transit options.
“My kids won’t stay in this town if they don’t get modern amenities,” he said.
Opponents from that neighborhood include Lynne Grabar, who has ridden streetcars in Europe but doesn’t believe they’re right for Kansas City. She worries about unsightly overhead electrical lines and streetcars interfering with automobile traffic. She rides Kansas City’s buses to run errands and sees how underused they are.
“There’s nothing magic about streetcars,” she said. “I don’t understand the romantic view of them that people seem to have. Or that when people don’t ride buses that they’ll ride streetcars.”
Grabar is concerned about another 1-cent sales tax increase and the added burden to property owners near the proposed route. “It’ll financially burden all of us in a way I don’t think we can afford,” she said.
Brookside resident Sherry DeJanes, a lawyer, first started organizing opponents earlier this year because she was concerned that the Main Street South streetcar would come too close to the popular Trolley Trail, which runs behind her house. Supporters promise the Trolley Trail will only be enhanced by the streetcar system, not harmed.
But DeJanes now says her effort has morphed into something bigger, and she is organizing people to fight any streetcar expansion at this time with a group called Smart KC (Supporters of Modern, Affordable, Regional Transit).
“Our goal is to put a stop to this streetcar proposal as it is designed,” she said.
DeJanes and others oppose the sales tax as regressive and believe it’s unfair to allow everyone in the streetcar district to vote on a property tax assessment that will only affect those closest to the routes.
DeJanes said she will file a response to the city’s plan this month with the Jackson County Circuit Court.
If DeJanes fails at the court level, she vows to fight the city’s plan at the elections later this year.
Some critics wonder why the city is moving so fast, and ask why it can’t wait until 2016, after the downtown streetcar begins running, before deciding on expansions.
City officials argue it’s essential to move forward now with all three corridors, while Kansas City is getting positive feedback about its plans from the Obama administration.
Any plan will need a huge federal transit grant, said Councilman Russ Johnson, the council’s lead streetcar advocate, but the city must have its local funding in place first. Hence the need to get local voter approval this year. The local tax increase would not take effect without the federal grant approval, and actual construction probably wouldn’t start until 2019.
Johnson concedes he was somewhat taken aback by the passionate feedback from some Brookside residents at a recent community meeting that drew an estimated 250 people.
“It was eye-opening,” he said of the opposition at that meeting. “There’s more than just a few, and they are very motivated.”
While some opponents insist the city hasn’t been listening to them, Johnson said that’s not true. The city is listening and taking differing views into account, just as it did with the downtown proposal, he said.
He also said the proposed streetcar boundaries could possibly be redrawn and reduced if planners determine the best route for now shouldn’t go south of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. City planners will refine the proposed streetcar extensions at a meeting Tuesday, and the City Council will vote on those Thursday.
Johnson said there are neighborhoods, especially along the Independence and Linwood corridors, that are clamoring for the streetcar, even with the tax increase. Others say that’s true, although skeptics exist in every corridor.
“I think everyone is very excited about the potential for economic development,” said Bobbi Baker-Hughes, director of the Independence Avenue Community Improvement District. She said her own neighborhood of Pendleton Heights, plus residents of Scarritt Renaissance and Independence Plaza, definitely see the merits of streetcars.
Support is also growing along 31st Street, said Danni Parelman, who with her fiance co-owns a building at 31st and Cherry streets that they are renovating for their home and a print shop.
Parelman, 25, agreed streetcars could help Kansas City compete with other cities that are luring young people.
“Having a better mass transit system makes the city more attractive and less like a weird sprawling Midwestern town,” she said. “It makes it seem a lot more urban and a place you’d want to go, instead of a place you got stuck in.”