KC streetcar election is a big decision with few voters

Last August at Union Station, visitors to the Modern Street Car Party, sponsored by the Regional Transit Alliance, toured an AmeriTram Ebrid Modern Streetcar.
Last August at Union Station, visitors to the Modern Street Car Party, sponsored by the Regional Transit Alliance, toured an AmeriTram Ebrid Modern Streetcar.

Ballots in Kansas City’s mail-in streetcar tax election aren’t due until Dec. 11, but already more than half the 697 eligible downtown voters have returned them.

“The folks that live in the area and have taken the time to request a ballot, there’s not a lot of undecideds here,” said campaign spokesman Alex Wendel.

Still, those 697 prospective voters make up only 19 percent of the 3,600 active registered voters in the streetcar taxing district.

So it’s a tiny electorate that will make a huge decision: Should downtown tax itself to help pay the costs of a $100 million, two-mile streetcar route from River Market to Union Station?

Supporters argue this is Kansas City’s best chance to create a modern transit system and a vibrant downtown, years behind more progressive cities. Opponents say it’s a needless boondoggle and a profoundly undemocratic way of making the decision.

“It will be the smallest number of voters committing the largest amount of money in the history of the city,” said Kansas City Public Library Director Crosby Kemper III, speaking as chair of the Show-Me Institute free-market think tank on Kansas City Public Television’s “Week in Review” show.

Kemper, who lives downtown, points out the project would entail decades of debt payments and annual operating costs of about $3 million, pushing the price tag way above $100 million.

But Mayor Sly James says that after years of delays and failures, Kansas City has worked with downtown residents and property owners to craft a workable plan that can finally bring streetcars back to the city. Supporters say the downtown property owners will reap the most benefits from this new asset.

“We have waited too long. We have fallen behind,” James said in a letter to Commerce Bank Chairman Jonathan Kemper, another critic of the plan. “Registered voters in downtown are participating in a statutorily directed election to decide the last and most important piece of the project’s funding.”

As the campaign draws to a close, the city is moving full speed ahead with final design plans in hopes of getting the system built by 2015. But the mayor and others say they’re not presuming the outcome.

“I don’t think you can ever take anything for granted in any kind of election,” Wendel said.

Meanwhile, city officials and experts are responding to lingering questions from Jonathan Kemper and others.

The following are key questions and answers that have surfaced in recent weeks.

Why was the unconventional election held this way rather than at the polls on Nov. 6?

State law allows this type of mail-in election for a transportation taxing district. Wendel said the streetcar taxing district boundaries did not align perfectly with voting precincts for an in-person election. A streetcar district board also said holding the election Nov. 6 would have placed the questions far down on the presidential ballot, while a mail-in ballot made sure voters would be engaged and informed.

When will we know the result?

The ballots are due back by 5 p.m. Dec. 11, and the Kansas City election board will announce the results Dec. 12.

Why is the campaign cautiously optimistic?

In an earlier mail-in election this summer, 474 people sent in ballots, with 69 percent supporting the taxing district’s creation. This next election seeks approval for a 1-cent sales tax increase in the district, plus new taxes on commercial, residential and large nonprofit properties. The sales tax would take effect April 1, and the property taxes would first be collected at the end of 2013.

Supporters point out that, while Kansas City voters have repeatedly rejected light-rail tax increases, downtown voters have been supportive. In a 2008 light-rail vote that garnered only 44 percent citywide, downtown voters supported a proposed 3/8-cent sales tax increase by more than 60 percent.

Many residential and commercial properties downtown are tax-abated. Do these streetcar taxes still apply, and are they tax-deductible on income tax returns?

The streetcar district has 786 parcels that are abated or tax-exempt, according to Jackson County records. But the streetcar property taxes are technically “special assessments” and apply even to tax-abated properties or large nonprofits.

These taxes are likely not deductible on an income tax return, unlike regular property taxes. According to experts at the Tax Institute at H Block, special assessments generally are not considered deductible real estate taxes under federal law. Instead, they are considered special local benefit taxes that tend to increase the value of property, H Block said in an email to The Star. If the streetcar taxes pass, those affected are advised to consult with their own tax preparers.

How disruptive would the streetcar construction be?

Consultants have developed a construction schedule to get streetcars running in 2015. They contemplate the partial closure of two-block segments for three weeks at a time to complete all track work. Utility relocations would occur before that. The Main Street bridge over Interstate 670 is already planned for replacement, and city officials say they are coordinating with the Missouri Department of Transportation to accommodate streetcar construction with that project.