August 9, 2014

Wanted: A feasible, sellable plan for KC streetcar

After Tuesday’s disappointing vote, there is some urgency for Kansas City streetcar supporters to sharpen their message, rationalize a feasible and sellable expansion plan, and do the real communications work that it will take to win over the hearts and minds of voters.

Well, that didn’t work.

We could point to any number of things that sent the proposed Kansas City streetcar expansion to voter purgatory last week. Start with a confusing two-step process, the first of which collided with a proposed state sales tax boost (another loser). Add a vacuum of facts and of resonant message clarity from streetcar proponents. And a good dose of tax weariness. And, it’s obvious, a large helping of distrust from residents on Kansas City’s East Side. And really, nine pages of ballot description?

In a talk with The Star’s editorial board last month, Mayor Sly James emphasized the economic benefits streetcar extensions along Independence Avenue and Linwood Boulevard could have for long neglected neighborhoods.

“We need this in our city,” James said. The streetcar, he added then, is not just an economic issue, it speaks to social justice and race relations and emotional issues in the city.

“We have to go east and west,” he said. “There are too many things in this city that go north and south.”

Those are compelling talking points. But it’s clear that message was largely ignored by those who went to the polls on Tuesday and soundly rejected Question A. False and polarizing campaign material put out by the Freedom Inc. political club added to the problem.

The ballot issue would have formed a transportation development district, covering a large part of the city’s East Side, within which sales taxes and extra property tax assessments could have funded the $550 million expansion project.

Could someone please figure out how to make this happen? It was disconcerting to hear the mayor say on the night of the streetcar defeat that he didn’t have a plan B.

It would be safe to assume that voters need to see the two-mile downtown starter line in action before ponying up on an expansion project. This is the Show-Me State, after all. But that might be too simplistic.

Expansion proponents are operating on an assumption of urgency. The federal government — today’s federal government — is primed to put up as much as $250 million in matching funds for this project. There’s no guarantee the next administration would be so inclined.

“Do you think President Ted Cruz would fund urban transit?” political consultant Steve Glorioso quipped last week.

So, yes, perhaps there’s some urgency for streetcar supporters to sharpen their message, rationalize a feasible and sellable expansion plan and do the work that it will take to win over hearts and minds.

Streetcar supporters are taking a close look at last week’s voting patterns and apparently coming to the conclusion that the next feasible step will be the Main Street piece of the proposed expansion. That’s the north-south spine stretching more than three miles from Union Station to the northwest corner of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, perhaps just south of Volker Boulevard. The pricetag is about $212 million.

Voters in those neighborhoods last week were far more inclined to accept or see the benefits of a streetcar in their midst.

The mayor’s hoped-for east-west connections, alas, will have to wait.

Good, smart transit — a mix of buses, rails and other people movers — is a vital component of a successful city. Sales tax funding for a MAX bus rapid-transit line for Prospect Avenue also failed last week, though it should remain a priority. Long-range plans for commuter rail and Johnson County connections should proceed apace. And a light-rail streetcar solution — a chunk-by-chunk expansion — should be fashioned to take the city into the future.

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