KC wants to get neighbors onboard streetcars

Kansas City Mayor Sly James
Kansas City Mayor Sly James

Construction won’t begin until spring on Kansas City’s two-mile streetcar system, but already the city is talking to neighbors about its expansion.

Mayor Sly James began recruiting nearby communities last week to consider connecting with the streetcar system that will, at least at its start, run primarily along Main Street.

“This starter line was not conceived to be the beginning and the end — it was simply the beginning,” James told members of North Kansas City’s City Council. “We are looking to go where people want us to go.”

James said Kansas City is interested in all options, provided that the numbers for cost, ridership and potential economic development pan out. Paying for any expansion — particularly the costly work of crossing the Missouri River — could pose a daunting hurdle.

Still, a slow-building push is on to see where the streetcar might reach next. North Kansas City was just the first city to hear the pitch.

“Now that we are building it, we have to work on all of the possibilities that might be out there for expansion,” said Russ Johnson, chairman of Kansas City Council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

James said Kansas City is taking a hard look at where to go next with the streetcar system, including alternate routes.

The mayor said he wanted surrounding cities to understand any budding streetcar plans in case they want to jump aboard expansion routes.

“We are not trying to push anything on anybody,” James said. “But we would be less than good neighbors and less than good friends if we didn’t share good news with you.”

Downtown voters in December approved funding to help pay for a $102 million, two-mile streetcar system that will run from River Market to Union Station.

In an unusual mail-in election involving only those living in the streetcar district, voters approved a 1-cent sales tax and property tax increases.

Kansas City expects to break ground this spring and have the system running in 2015.

Matt Shatto, city administrator for North Kansas City, said he wants insight about the streetcar system, particularly about the likelihood of the line bridging north across the river.

Shatto said there has long been interest in expanding public transit to the Northland through North Kansas City.

In 2008, North Kansas City voters approved a half-cent sales tax for a light-rail line, but that plan was contingent on Kansas City voters approving a companion measure. They didn’t. Although a North Kansas City transportation development district emerged from the election, the sales tax never kicked in.

Michael Smith, an assistant city administrator for North Kansas City, said the city is interested in plans for the streetcar system and hopes for a public transit tie-in to other parts of the metro area.

Kansas City is getting ready to study multiple routes and options. Among the options: an extension of the starter line from Crown Center to the Country Club Plaza or the University of Missouri-Kansas City; routes going into eastern Kansas City; and a route to the western part of the city.

“This is a starter line,” said Sherri McIntyre, Kansas City’s public works director. “We do not intend this to be a limit of what we have as a system.”