Kansas City’s streetcars probably won’t get here by late September as once promised, and that’s a problem.
Boosters of the streetcar system made a mistake by not telling the public earlier about the delayed delivery of the four vehicles that will carry passengers on the two-mile line.
In turn, that has harmed the credibility of City Hall and the Kansas City Streetcar Authority, especially with the people who derisively refer to the “toy train” project. Officials had plenty of opportunities — in weekly updates and public meetings — to discuss the reasons the contractor in New York was behind schedule.
Officials must continue pushing the vehicle manufacturer, CAF USA Inc., to finish the cars as soon as possible so months of required testing on local tracks can begin.
Streetcar supporters deflect the criticism by accurately noting much of the project they can control is on schedule and on budget. The tracks have been built from the River Market to Union Station, and the overhead electrical wiring should be done in a few months.
One more key point: The $18 million worth of streetcars eventually will get here — possibly by late 2015 — and the system will be up and running sometime in 2016. Whether that’s before or after the artificial deadline of the Big 12 Conference men’s basketball tournament in March isn’t that essential. A few years from now, this incident could wind up as a minor blip on a $100 million project’s time line.
The streetcar system is important, because it should help build a more vibrant downtown while moving passengers around the area and attracting, as it already has, economic development such as hotels, office buildings and thousands of new housing units.
Those are all positive points that make the decision by city and streetcar officials to not disclose the truth about the delayed vehicles even more irritating, especially when the project is part of a long episode in confidence building.
It started three years ago, when supporters persuaded enough downtown property owners to tax themselves to help pay for the system. The story has continued as the tracks were laid, some businesses got upset over construction in front of their properties, and Mayor Sly James and other backers celebrated the streetcar line’s progress at events this summer.
A detour occurred in 2014, when streetcar proponents tried to get funds to extend the system south toward the Country Club Plaza as well as into the East Side. Voters rejected that plan.
Now, it’s common wisdom that future expansion proposals will depend a great deal on how well the initial system works once it begins operating.
If passengers fill the vehicles every day — and especially if economic development deals continue to ramp up near the downtown line — voters in other parts of Kansas City could be more than willing to support a bigger system.
But if the promised downtown development fizzles out, or if few people climb aboard the streetcars, an early extension could be off the table.
That brings us back to the delayed vehicle delivery. City and streetcar authority officials need to build all the public confidence they can in their ability to push this crucial project toward a successful, cost-effective, on-time completion.
That includes not only holding celebratory block parties, but also quickly leveling with Kansas Citians when problems pop up.