Kansas City voters have a important opportunity this month to build on the success of the downtown streetcar line.
During the next few weeks, voters will decide whether to expand the streetcar system and more than double the length of the route that now runs from River Market to Union Station. Kansas City has been quick to embrace the less-than-two-year-old rail system, and the feedback from riders makes a strong case for expansion.
A recent survey of riders surprised even strong proponents of extending the streetcar through Midtown and farther south to the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
A full 38 percent of riders take the streetcar to get to their jobs. And 76 percent are Kansas City metro-area residents; the other 24 percent said they were visitors to our city. Also, 50 percent of weekday riders reported spending money at the many businesses along the route.
While streetcar traverses a narrow slice of the city, it has attracted riders from all parts of the metro area. And the survey found that some are willing to drive to Union Station or River Market, pay to park their cars and then ride the free streetcar.
The data bolster the argument for extending the route another 3.5 miles, at an expected cost of $227 million.
The streetcar line, even in this early phase, already has become a valuable local transportation option.
The streetcar is not a novelty nor a “toy train” as critics have suggested. The popular two-mile line running from the River Market to Union Station has been a success by any measure, exceeding all projections and tallying 2 million rides during its first year of operation.
It should be expanded south to connect UMKC to The Country Club Plaza, to Midtown, to the Crown Center area, into downtown and then to the River Market area. And back.
Monday was the first day for eligible voters who live within the transportation development district to request their mail-in ballots to vote on the expansion. Residents who live within the district boundaries, which stretch from the Missouri River to 53rd Street and from State Line Road to Campbell Street, have until 5 p.m. on April 3 to turn in a ballot application. The county will mail them on May 1, and they must be returned by June 12.
Voters will decide whether to approve a 1 percent sales tax to help fund the project, with construction expected to begin in 2020 or 2021.
This is an important vote for the future of Kansas City.
Local planners view the streetcar line as the potential spine for a larger transit system, one that could allow people to park and ride or connect with Kansas City Area Transportation Authority buses.
April 3 is also the date for a public hearing where people can provide input design features and on where stops should be located along the expanded route. And Friday was the last day for people to submit ideas about possible public-private partnerships along the current line or its expanded route.
A part of these discussions should be a commitment to ensuring that the streetcar is accessible to those who live to the east and west as well, whether by bus connections or future expansions yet to be envisioned.
But expanding south is the crucial next step for Kansas City. A “yes” vote in this election will build on the streetcar system’s momentum, spurring economic activity along the route and providing residents and visitors with an even more useful transportation option.