The praising of — and caterwauling about — the new downtown streetcar system won’t end May 6.
But Kansas Citians sure will have a better idea of which side of this debate they’re going to choose going forward.
The long-scheduled service on the 2.2-mile line starts that day, highlighted by a giant celebration. Street parties up and down the route from the River Market to Union Station are being scheduled, featuring food trucks and entertainment.
The hoopla is well earned. It also will mark a major turning point, giving the streetcar system the opportunity to prove its value as a public transit service and redevelopment catalyst to help further revive downtown. We disagree with skeptics who think it will be an embarrassing and costly flop.
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The Kansas City Streetcar Authority and City Hall deserve praise for delivering a publicly financed project that is on budget and will open generally in the time frame long ago promised of early 2016.
Critics who have lambasted the streetcar as a waste of money have no legitimate complaints to make about large cost overruns or super long delays in opening to the public, as have occurred in Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati.
Also intact are the promises for the rides in Kansas City to be free, supported through sales and property taxes imposed in a downtown district that includes the streetcar system, as well as frequent service on weekdays.
The streetcar will operate 6 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 6 a.m. Friday to 2 a.m. Saturday, 7 a.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
The grand opening should turn out to be yet another positive event for Kansas City and its leaders, especially Mayor Sly James.
Just this past week, legal obstacles vanished to construction of a needed downtown convention hotel and airlines that serve Kansas City International Airport made it clear they’re ready to help finance a $1 billion new terminal.
To be sure, the streetcar undertaking has had its shares of problems.
Some restaurants, shops and other businesses endured many months of construction along the line, leading to deserved complaints.
The company that made the streetcars did not deliver them as quickly as expected.
During the long and continuing training runs, far too many motorists are still parking their cars, trucks and delivery vehicles too close to the track or — amazingly — on top of the rail line itself.
That last fact has emerged as one of the key concerns about the efficiency of the new system. The streetcars are on a fixed rail and can’t move around parked vehicles. If the streetcar grinds to a halt carrying dozens of passengers going to work or to and from lunch, that will harm its reputation and potential ridership. Streetcar officials, tow truck drivers and police will have to be extra vigilant in taking care of these concerns.
On a more upbeat note, streetcar backers say they have seen a big improvement in how motorists are dealing with the dictate of “parking within the white line” along the route. This issue may mostly resolve itself, especially since opening day is more than two months away.
The construction of Kansas City’s system stands in contrast to recent media reports that have pointed to big problems with streetcar lines in other cities such as Atlanta, where ticket machines are installed to collect fares on a line that used to be free. All of that costs money — expenses Kansas City decided to avoid by offering free fares.
James and downtown’s biggest proponents have spent the last few years talking about the potential for the streetcar to bring a surge of investment into the heart of the city.
The mayor last week claimed “more than $1.6 billion in construction” in the streetcar district over the last three years. It’s an impressive feat, though not all projects obviously were prompted by the rail line.
Some have proceeded without taxpayer subsidies. However, the city and other taxing entities still are diverting tens of millions of future tax dollars from providing public services over to private businesses, helping them build hotel rooms, housing units and other projects.
Can the new streetcar system help shut off that siphon of incentives? That should be a goal. With the streetcar as a magnet for residents and workers, developers should be able to capitalize on that interest to complete their projects without such large helpings of tax dollars.
On May 6, the streetcar will begin to prove what its real value will be to the crucial future of downtown Kansas City.