A feud has erupted over whether and when to expand Kansas City’s amazingly so-far successful downtown streetcar line.
That’s a shame. An unwarranted delay could damage public transit’s future in the city.
Proponents of quick progress point out that ridership has been far higher than expected on the 2.2-mile starter line. It has helped attract significant redevelopment downtown, leading to new jobs and residents.
Supporters make a compelling case: Ask midtown residents if they want to keep the line rolling up the Main Street hill from Union Station to the Country Club Plaza and near the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Skeptics have a different view.
Their main point is that the city wants to ask voters in April to approve a property tax increase to pay for an $800 million bond issue. It would finance basic improvements that Kansas Citians often say in citizens surveys they want, such as better sidewalks and streets.
Council member Katheryn Shields said at a council meeting last week, “I think this is not the right time for expansion,” which she says she supports.
Mayor Sly James said in an interview Tuesday, “The most important thing we need to get done is the GO bonds.”
First of all, the city hasn’t even put together its wish list for the $800 million bond package. City Manager Troy Schulte on Tuesday said the city staff was diligently working on those requests.
Meanwhile, the Regional Transit Alliance has its ducks in a row. It knows how it wants to finance the 3.75-mile extension, through a mixture of sales and property tax increases imposed near the line. A schedule of elections to set up a transportation district and fund the expansion has been established, with the final funding decision now set for summer 2017.
But the alliance would need the city’s help in trying to get about $100 million of federal funds required to complete the project. Streetcar backers logically don’t want to irritate James and the council.
Tom Gerend, executive director of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority, said Wednesday that everyone would benefit from being on the same page when it comes to the project.
Keep this point in mind: The city’s bond election would occur in April, months before a final summer vote is now set for streetcar expansion funding. And while the bond issue would involve voters from all over the city, the streetcar election would be decided by a sliver of voters living close to the Main Street expansion route.
Streetcar proponents’ request for tax increases thus would come after voters would have decided what to do with the $800 million bond package. It’s possible that voters along the Main Street corridor might feel “taxed out” and not want to do anything more at this time.
But all of this guesswork ignores one fact: Kansas City voters are fully capable of supporting — or rejecting — multiple tax issues.
Just this November, for instance, many city voters will face at least three local tax increase elections on their ballots for libraries, children’s services and light rail, plus one or more statewide cigarette taxes.
As streetcar attorney Doug Stone aptly told the council last week, someone once said, “Kansas City can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
That quote sounded familiar, so I checked: It came from James, who has noted it several times while urging residents to tackle the city’s many problems.
James said Tuesday, “I happen to agree with (Stone).” And he then emphasized, “Nobody is a bigger proponent of the streetcar in this city than I am.”
Here’s the best way to show that: Work with council members and the Regional Transit Alliance, form a solid partnership, and make sure this budding feud does not get out of control.