May 21, 2014

Kansas City’s new streetcar line is rolling now, but roadblocks loom for larger system

Residents will have to decide whether the bigger streetcar line is a high priority for them and, ultimately, for Kansas City.

Kansas City’s planned 2.2-mile downtown streetcar line reaches a notable milestone with a formal groundbreaking Thursday morning. This major transit and economic development project is off to a promising start, although big challenges loom to extend the system.

The streetcar line still is on budget and on schedule to start rolling in late 2015. Oversight groups and the City Council have smoothly made recommendations and some final decisions about routes, budgets, ride costs (free), and who’s going to install, operate and maintain the equipment.

Proponents point out that that developments announced in recent months — including a hotel and apartment units — either came to downtown because of the starter line or will benefit from it.

The Star has long supported light rail or streetcars for their potential to help spur urban core development. However, we opposed the tightly limited voting and funding processes used for the downtown system.

Since their success at the polls in 2012, city and streetcar officials admirably have focused on keeping promises they made to deliver a first-rate project to Kansas Citians. One pledge was to quickly study and develop extensions of the streetcar system.

But the future for building eight more miles of track, estimated to cost more than $450 million, is far from assured.

In August, voters in a large part of Kansas City south of the Missouri River likely will be asked to approve a transportation district that will define where a one-cent sales tax and higher property assessments close to the streetcar lines could be charged to help extend the system. If that election is successful, the funding plan would go to voters in November.

Supporters cast the elections as ways for Kansas City to improve transit, attract residents, boost business creation and generally help rebuild the urban core. They point out that federal funds could pay for about half the expenses to extend lines south on Main Street and east on Independence Avenue and Linwood Boulevard.

Still, the high costs of this venture will attract deserved attention between now and possible elections in August and November. Residents will have to decide whether the bigger streetcar line is a high priority for them and, ultimately, for Kansas City.

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