Kansas City’s downtown streetcar project wins a $20 million federal grant

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.

The federal government will pitch in $20 million more for Kansas City’s downtown streetcars, which should improve the project and may provide local taxpayer relief, city officials said Friday.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver confirmed Friday that Kansas City will receive a highly competitive $20 million federal transportation grant to help construct the 2-mile streetcar system from the River Market to Union Station. The grant is expected to cover about 20 percent of the project cost, and construction is still scheduled to be completed in 2015.

“We’re on a roll in Kansas City, and the taxpayers in our community can be pleased that the work we’re doing here is being recognized nationally,” said Cleaver, who had spoken to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

“This streetcar project will encourage housing, construction and business development in the city, and that will mean more jobs across the region,” McCaskill said. More information on all the grants awarded nationally will be announced next week.

Mayor Sly James was also elated.

“This is a huge step forward in the continuing renaissance of Kansas City,” he said, adding that the grant underscores the Transportation Department’s confidence in the region’s transportation planning.

Kansas City was among the lucky few to receive part of the latest round of TIGER grants, short for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery. The feds had received 568 applications totaling $9 billion in requests and only allocated $474 million.

“The fact that the feds are on board with it just confirms what we’ve already known, that we’re doing a lot of things right on this project,” said Councilman Russ Johnson, who has been the prime council advocate for the downtown streetcars.

City officials had been hopeful about receiving the grant but knew it was far from a sure thing.

Kansas City had applied for a $25 million TIGER grant last year, but at the time the city didn’t have its local funding mechanism in place — something that is crucial to winning the federal transportation grants.

Since then, the city has established a downtown transportation district, and several hundred voters living within the district approved new downtown sales and property taxes to help pay the local share. The city also identified $17 million in different federal grants, and planners said they had sufficient funding sources to move forward with the $100 million project.

Then two property owners filed a lawsuit early this year challenging the fairness and constitutionality of the downtown district taxes.

Despite that legal cloud, the city still applied for the latest round of TIGER grants, saying the project qualified and was a good candidate for $20 million in funds.

While the grant application was under review, the Missouri Court of Appeals earlier this month upheld the legality of the downtown district taxes. Although one property owner is still seeking further appellate court review, city officials feel confident they will put the legal case behind them, and apparently the Transportation Department agreed.

Public Works Director Sherri McIntyre was thrilled and somewhat surprised Friday that the city had received the entire amount it had requested.

“It’s a big help,” she said, adding that the extra money will allow the city to build double track rather than single track on Main Street from 20th Street to near Union Station, which could allow trains to reach their stops more quickly and regularly.

Ralph Davis, streetcar project manager for the city, said this was also probably the last time Kansas City could have qualified for this type of grant for the project.

“This was our best shot,” he said.

The city had planned to issue about $73 million in bonds back in March to help construct the project, but that bond sale has been delayed by the funding lawsuit. If the lawsuit appeals run out and the city can proceed, this new federal grant may lower that bond issue, said City Treasurer Tammy Queen.

“It would reduce the amount we would borrow,” Queen said. “Obviously the less we have to borrow, the better.”

While she was making no promises, and there are still a lot of unknowns about the ultimate construction cost, Queen said the federal grant might reduce the local tax burden.

Although Friday’s news was a big green light for the project, it doesn’t mean the bumpy ride is over. The city is preparing to issue a construction management contract for the streetcar project, but that process is also the subject of a battle between two construction management bidders.

Johnson said the City Council’s transportation committee will take up that contract dispute Thursday, and he expects a “very vigorous discussion.”