Streetcar planning moves into second phase despite legal and funding difficulties

Despite a legal challenge that threatens to undermine financing for Kansas City’s downtown streetcar line, plans for the system’s second phase got a boost Thursday.

The City Council approved a $1.9 million study that would rank seven possible extensions to the system’s 2-mile spine.

“We can’t afford to build everything we want to build,” Councilman Russ Johnson said during a committee meeting before the council vote.

So when the study is done by this time next year, he said, the council will have to make difficult choices among seven possible connections to a starter line that is supposed to run from the River Market to Union Station.

The corridors under review are Independence Avenue, Southwest Boulevard, 12th Street to the east side, 12th Street to the West Bottoms, 18th Street to the jazz district, Main Street south to the Country Club Plaza and 31st Street/Linwood Boulevard as a connection to the sports complex.

Berkebile Nelson Immenschuh McDowell Inc. was hired to rank each according to cost and the economic benefits it might generate, such as repopulating the urban core and attracting business development.

“We’re not just building infrastructure,” said Councilman Jim Glover. “We’re building a community around infrastructure.”

Whether they will be building anything at all remains under a cloud, however. On Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court handed the city a setback when it refused to quickly settle a legal challenge to the funding mechanism the city is using to help build the $100 million starter line.

Back in March, a Jackson County judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by two downtown property owners who argued that the taxes imposed on them and other taxpayers in the streetcar district were unconstitutional.

The property owners appealed, which caused the city to delay selling bonds to start building the system. Hoping to speed up the process, Kansas City’s streetcar authority asked the high court to decide the case, rather than go through the intermediary step of a court of appeals review.

But that request was denied this week, clouding the city’s chances of making a successful bid for a $20 million federal grant.

In an interview after the meeting, Johnson conceded that the odds were against the city getting that money and blamed the two plaintiffs, Sue Anne Burke and Jeffrey “Stretch” Rumaner.

“Two people may cost the city $10 (million) to $20 million,” he said.

Informed of the comment, the attorney representing Burke and Rumaner said it was unfair to blame his clients.

“Kansas City has had a history of having difficulty getting funding for transportation projects,” lawyer Mark Bredemeier said, “and it has nothing to do with our lawsuit.”

The deadline for submitting the grant application is Monday. A final court ruling could be weeks or months away.