Trying to get excited about Kansas City’s costly streetcar plan

07/02/2014 5:07 PM

07/02/2014 6:48 PM

Here we go again. Kansas Citians are debating the wisdom of building a fixed-rail transit system in the urban core. And it’s controversial — again.

That’s not surprising, given the long history of projects involving proposed light-rail and now streetcar lines.

I’m among the old-timers who have promoted fixed rail — as a crucial economic development tool first and a transit system second — since at least the mid-1990s.

The biggest stumbling block was created by then-Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, who in 1997 deep-sixed exhaustive work to build a light-rail spine from the River Market to the Country Club Plaza. He claimed it wouldn’t help a lot of people on the East Side and was aimed at tourists.

Then followed activist Clay Chastain’s numerous light-rail initiatives plus proposals under mayors Kay Barnes (2001) and Mark Funkhouser (2008). Voters defeated all except a Chastain plan the City Council repealed for being financially unfeasible.

This recounting of the past is one reason I have to shake my head at some of the recent actions of many people involved in the current streetcar expansion project.

They have deserved pride in finally getting at least the two-mile streetcar starter line under way. It’s a potential game-changer, at least for downtown development.

But they also too often seem to exhibit a dismissive attitude toward anyone who dares to question the wisdom of investing another half-billion dollars or so of local and federal funds in streetcar expansion.

Sorry, but when something is that expensive — and with funding sources up in the air as they are — it’s actually OK if people want some very specific answers about the entire project. Even as a fixed-rail booster, I’m hoping to see a more compelling case made for it this summer.

Streetcar backers do have time to get their plan across the finish line.

The first step is to persuade voters in a large chunk of the city south of the Missouri River to endorse formation of a transportation development district that would define who could have to help pay for the streetcar project.

If voters on Aug. 5 approve that district, they get a chance in November to pass a city sales tax increase and a special assessment on properties close to the line. Those revenues would help finance the project, along with a hoped-for huge helping of federal funds, not yet guaranteed.

How high will that local sales tax be? No one knows. This week, Missouri Department of Transportation officials said they were working with the mayor’s office on a way to use some revenue from a proposed statewide three-quarter-cent sales tax increase for the streetcar project.

With voter approval of the state tax on Aug. 5, the proposed streetcar tax in November might fall to a quarter-cent.

But trouble keeps popping up for the project.

Days ago, streetcar opponents called “foul” over a contract awarded by City Hall for a community engagement process near the proposed new routes. It basically looks as if the city could spend money in July to try to get out the vote for the streetcar. Mayor Sly James disputes that, saying lower-income residents especially need opportunities “to provide feedback on any topic of concern related to the streetcar project.”

I agree with that sentiment, but the timing of the outreach remains odd in a project where the line won’t be built until 2019 at the earliest. There’s no truly defensible reason this work would have to be done just weeks prior to an August election.

Streetcar supporters often wonder out loud why they are being so scrutinized when costly, sprawl-causing freeway projects get less attention from residents.

So noted. But guess what? When you ask for higher property and sales taxes, people have a right to demand detailed answers. That’s what the campaign the next few weeks should focus on providing.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Twitter: @YaelTAbouhalkah.

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