Yael T. Abouhalkah

April 9, 2014

‘Just say yes’ crowd seeks wins on KCI and streetcar expansion

Costly plans to expand the downtown streetcar line and to dramatically update Kansas City International Airport are under attack by many people. But will a risk-taking community eventually approve one or both of these plans — as it has done many times in the past with controversial and expensive projects?

Costly plans to expand the downtown streetcar line and to dramatically update Kansas City International Airport are under attack by many people.

But it’s still possible that a community not shy about taking risks could approve one or both plans — following the positive trend of victories for other controversial and expensive projects in the past.

Fresh off an Election Day where voters passed all five city-proposed issues, many Kansas City boosters would love to see a bigger streetcar system and a more modern airport in the future.

History reveals some encouraging news for this “just say yes” crowd.

• Critics didn’t think the bistate sales tax sought in 1996 to restore Union Station would pass or be worth it. Johnson Countians didn’t care about the urban core, went the argument. Demolition was possible for the shuttered, leaking building.

Yet voters in Johnson County and three other counties fortunately


approve the innovative, two-state tax. True, Union Station’s managers blew through a large endowment in the 2000s. However, reduced operating costs and success attracting more tenants have financially stabilized Union Station, which remains an iconic, gloriously restored structure.

• Opponents of new fees in 2004 to build Sprint Center pointed out that Kemper Arena had just been updated using tens of millions in tax dollars. There were no ironclad promises to nab a professional basketball or hockey team, either.

But Kansas City voters fortunately endorsed the new arena as a complement to the Power Light District. Sprint Center has become one of the most successful arenas in the nation for concerts, while producing extra revenue for City Hall.

• Detractors in 2006 who opposed approving a sales tax to renovate the Truman Sports Complex said they didn’t want to bail out the rich ballplayers or owners of the Chiefs and Royals. Also, some wanted a downtown ballpark.

Jackson Countians passed the needed tax increase. Fan amenities were added, as promised. The biggest bonus: The two major league teams are locked in to playing in Kansas City until 2031.

Now on to the just-say-no crowd.

The usual suspects are out there, such as the meddling St. Louis multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield, who finances attacks on public investments here and other parts of Missouri in his bid to reduce taxes.

But there’s something else going on, too, which Mayor Sly James and his allies on these two issues must heed.

Reasonable questions exist about whether the streetcar expansions really will spur redevelopment, especially along Linwood Boulevard and Independence Avenue. The expense of the proposed lines is somewhat shocking: a one-cent sales tax


a special charge on property owners up to a third of a mile from the tracks.

Regarding KCI, aviation director Mark VanLoh has little-to-no credibility. A citizens task force seems ready to adopt a report that contains several wide-ranging options of what to do there. And after airlines and federal security officials said they liked the current arrangement, people who want to “save” KCI have latched on to those arguments to try to keep the convenient status quo.

The streetcar issue will be resolved first, with elections possible this year. Kansas Citians could go along with the “just say yes” crowd — or reject a bigger system.

The airport’s future is murkier. The citizens group’s report goes to the Aviation Department and the airlines. A joint city-airlines plan could be ready by mid-2015 or early 2016. If bonds are requested, voters would make the final decision.

As the past shows, they often embrace large and risky projects that do pay off.

The streetcar and KCI issues, however, pose big tests for that optimistic spirit.

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