KC picks up likely streetcar funding

Kansas City seems to have closed a big chunk of the funding gap for the proposed downtown streetcar system created when the city failed to get a much hoped for $25 million federal grant this summer.

The Mid-America Regional Council’s transportation committee this week blessed the city’s applications for two other federal grants totaling $18 million. The full MARC board is expected to follow suit.

About $16 million of that will go to buy the four streetcars that will ply the route along Main Street between the River Market and Union Station at 10-minute intervals if and when the system starts operation, possibly in early 2015.

Officials hope to make up the $7 million difference from the lost grant money with cost savings and contingency funds.

Sherri McIntrye, assistant city manager and public works director, reported those and other details to the City Council on Thursday.

Among the details were the anticipated construction schedule. Work could begin next summer. The hours of operation once the tracks are laid and the 120-passenger vehicles are rolling are 6 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday and until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Although the financing plan is not finished, “we’re moving forward today as if it’s completed, done,” McIntyre said.

Voters in the transportation development district surrounding the planned streetcar line still must approve a taxing plan that will pay the lion’s share of the $100 million cost. Those ballots won’t be counted until December.

But because downtown residents earlier voted to establish the district, officials are confident that voters will also approve the sales tax and property tax assessments needed to build and operate the system.

Mayor Sly James and council members took turns stressing the importance of the project, answering critics who have previously called the streetcar starter line an expensive frill.

Not so, they said. It’s not merely a heavily subsidized mode of transportation but a way to encourage business investment along the line in the form of new stores, apartments and offices.

“It’s a revenue generator,” Mayor Pro-Tem Cindy Circo said. “It is an economic development tool.”

Planning is already under way for extensions to the system, possibly along Independence Avenue, 12th and 18th streets, south to the Country Club Plaza, along Southwest Boulevard and across the Heart of America Bridge to the Northland.

Also Thursday, the council gave final approval to creation of a land bank that will take ownership of thousands of vacant lots and abandoned houses and try to return them to productive use.

Councilman Scott Wagner said that it is an important step in rebuilding the urban core, but that it is just one of many.