They speak of learning curves and growing pains when streetcars come to town.
Downtown Kansas City on Friday wrapped up Week 4 of being a streetcar place. It went well — much better than Week 3, when problems ranged from Car No. 803 being damaged when struck by a motorist to Car No. 804 withstanding a minor derailment.
With every new endeavor in public transit, “there are always lessons learned,” said Jeff Boothe of the national advocacy group Community Streetcar Coalition.
Get used to it, Kansas City: Even 15 years after Portland, Ore., revived the modern streetcar line in America, that city is still learning lessons.
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For example, some riders there think nothing of sneaking dogs on board. When it happened in September 2014, a pit bull named Baby Girl mauled to death a Pomeranian in front of petrified passengers.
The next day, the doors of Portland streetcars had large new signs restating the rule that pets must be kept in containers unless they’re service animals.
Kansas City has a similar policy, but will riders always obey it?
Of course not, say communities with more experience than Kansas City in living with streetcars.
Some problems will arise immediately and get fixed. Other issues — confusion among motorists on negotiating intersections or parking their cars away from the streetcars’ path — “tend to go away within six months or a year,” Boothe said.
Boneheaded behavior? That never goes away.
So far in our co-existence with the 78,000-pound gliders downtown, ridership has exceeded expectations and passengers overwhelmingly have obeyed the rules of conduct, said Donna Mandelbaum, spokeswoman for the Kansas City Streetcar Authority.
The same can’t be said of motorists. An Overland Park teen was ticketed for running through a traffic signal on his way to a May 26 Tech N9ne concert and colliding with Streetcar No. 803, putting it out of service.
The day before that, the system was shut down for four hours after smoke appeared, possibly coming from a construction zone, around an electrified streetcar pole near 20th and Main streets. Electrical testing has turned up no problems, Mandelbaum said.
What could wind up being a peskier issue arose May 23.
The system was shut down for more than five hours that day after some wheels of No. 804 slid off the track while the streetcar was inching away from the Union Station stop. No one was injured.
One contributor could have been wicked Kansas City weather, Mandelbaum said. A period of torrential rains and whipping winds last month may have caused debris to pool and lodge around a rail switch that allows the cars to turn.
“That’s a viable possibility,” said Dan Bower, executive director of Portland Streetcar, which boasts the largest ridership of any streetcar system in the nation. He said Kansas City officials recently contacted the maintenance manager of the streetcar system there to discuss switch issues and foul weather.
All too familiar with how their weather can wreck things, Kansas Citians can take comfort that regular maintenance, such as pressure washing and sweeping the switches of road debris, can prevent malfunctions, Bower said.
But it may also point to a problem very unfamiliar to the locals: streetcar switch mechanics.
Bower said the types of switches Kansas City installed may not bode well for keeping them clean in the event of fierce overnight storms.
The so-called manual switches, commonly used in modern streetcar systems, are spring-activated to turn as streetcars pass through. For a variety of reasons, Portland is gradually converting its system’s manual switches to pricier motorized models, which cost about $200,000 each.
“The motorized ones will power through the debris” as the switch pivots into place, Bower said. “The manual spring returns don’t always have the oomph” to dislodge rocks or other material that can block the switches from making a complete turn.
Mandelbaum said when streetcar crews probed into the Union Station switch after the derailment, “we found a lot of debris … rocks and just gunk,” which may have accumulated during a 4-inch downpour of rain overnight. The mechanism was power-washed clean.
The authority addressed other possible factors as well. The streetcar’s front wheels were replaced. Operators were instructed to slow their approach to the switch from 5 mph to 3 mph. And transit officials are working with Union Station to explore improvements to drainage.
“We’d like to go through a year of weather patterns and see how we work in all seasons,” Mandelbaum said.
Kansas City’s first weeks in the streetcar club haven’t been nearly as rocky as what Charlotte, N.C., experienced last summer. Officials there learned that being open about mistakes was key to securing public confidence.
Just a week after Charlotte opened its new 1.5-mile streetcar line for service, operator error led to a runaway streetcar drifting for half a mile before banging into an SUV.
The Charlotte Area Transit System had safely operated a light-rail train system for several years. Now it faced a horrific start to inviting people into vintage-replica streetcars.
Though nobody was seriously hurt and the vehicle’s brakes were found to be in good working order, “something went wrong, so we needed to come out quick and say it,” said Olaf Kinard, the system’s spokesman.
The accident happened on a Saturday. The next Tuesday, a lengthy news conference was held, Kinard said. It detailed all that the operator had done wrong when, at the last stop of the line, he moved from the controls at one end of the streetcar to the other end.
Video cameras inside the streetcar confirm he failed to turn a dial that would activate the proper controls.
“Once we knew it wasn’t a mechanical issue, we had to dispel any rumors,” Kinard said. “After that, the story kind of ended.”
Often the public’s confidence in a new streetcar system also depends on how smoothly it came into being, from drawing board to financing and construction, said Boothe of the Community Streetcar Coalition.
Because, he said, the Kansas City project was “well managed” relative to other places — that is, on budget and operating within five years of voter approval — people here may show more patience as the city works through kinks. The late arrival of streetcars last fall, for example, stirred few outcries as Kansas Citians cheered on their champion Royals.
“You’ve opened with a few little hiccups,” Boothe said. “But in the case of Atlanta and Washington, D.C., they had big hiccups.”
In both cities, project planners were criticized for cost overruns, extended delays, safety problems and poor communication. Last month in a letter to Atlanta’s mayor, Georgia regulators threatened to shut down the city’s $98 million downtown loop if dozens of outlined problems weren’t soon addressed.
The Atlanta line opened 18 months ago. Future phases are planned.
Said Boothe: “It’s like when a new restaurant gets that first really bad review, it can be pretty hard to overcome.”
In early March while Kansas City’s system was still being tested, Streetcar No. 801 winged a Mercedes parked on the west side of the Main Street southbound tracks.
The automobile’s driver-side wheels were past the white line intended to keep parked vehicles out of the streetcars’ path.
Reporters raced to the scene.
“There were two news helicopters overhead, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is not good,’ ” said streetcar system spokeswoman Mandelbaum. “It turned out to be really great publicity on how to park along the streetcar route.”
Downtown resident Bill Norton did his part, too.
During the five-month testing period, Norton volunteered to put Mind the Line leaflets on windshields, a friendly reminder to motorists who had improperly parked near the streetcar tracks.
“I live near the line and I’m retired. I had the time,” Norton said. “I’m also a supporter of the streetcar. I wanted to do anything I can to help it along.”
On a single inspection months ago, he might find several cars improperly parked, especially around the Fifth Street stretch of the line. Since May 6, when the public began boarding the streetcars, he has hardly spotted any vehicles in violation.
“It’s a night-and-day difference,” he said.
Capt. Daniel Gates of the Kansas City Police Department said “tickets and tows” are helping get the message across one parking violator at a time. One fine in the $150 to $200 range can change a motorist’s behavior for good, he said.
“In general, everyone’s trying to do the right thing,” Gates said.
Enthusiasm among riders is surprising everybody. Expected over time to carry about 2,700 daily riders, the downtown line to date has averaged a daily ridership of about 4,600 and a weekend ridership of 9,100.
Some 25,000 boarded during the Memorial Day weekend.
The Streetcar Authority’s Twitter page, @kcstreetcar, has more than 9,000 followers. Through Twitter and the authority’s website, many have posted suggestions for improving the system.
Several recommended that a streetcar app be developed, enabling mobile users to track movement along the route. Many others wanted specific arrival times posted and updated at stations. Mandelbaum said the authority is working on delivering both.
Less easy to address are motorists’ frustrations when stuck in the middle of an intersection behind an unloading streetcar and the traffic light changes from green to red.
If they can’t back up, they have to stay put and rile the cross-traffic. Along much of the route, motorists are prohibited from passing around streetcars.
Bower of Portland Streetcar said people who work and live along a new line tend to be quick to adapt. For them, “the learning doesn’t take six months, more like a couple of weeks.” He said Kansas Citians might take a bit longer to adjust because they have little experience maneuvering around rail transit.
Tourists, infrequent visitors and new residents are always more apt to create tie-ups, get into accidents with streetcars and be unaware of parking requirements, Bower said.
And even regulars can be slow to get with the program. Just outside Bower’s office in Portland, the 15-year-old streetcar system continues to be interrupted most days by delivery trucks blocking the tracks.
Customers at a nearby liquor store, who think they’ll be in and out in a minute, have yet to learn that parking on the rail line is a mistake.
And dogs? Unless you’re a service animal, don’t even think about boarding.