Kansas City officials will travel to Spain on streetcar fact-finding mission

When Kansas City announced its streetcar vehicle selection back in October, the city emphasized that the cars will be manufactured in the United States.

But the company’s engineering headquarters are in Spain, and that’s why the city says it needs to send three employees and a consultant to Spain next month on a technical fact-finding mission.

“The engineers reside in Spain,” said public works director Sherri McIntyre, one of three city engineers making the trip. “It’s typical to go to the engineers and the manufacturer to finalize details.”

The trip, planned for early February, involves four days on the ground in Zaragoza and Beasain and is estimated to cost $2,600 per person. McIntyre will be accompanied by two other city engineers and by a consultant who has advised the city on the streetcar procurement. The money is coming from the city’s streetcar fund.

She said the trip will allow for in-depth conversations about the vehicle’s design complexities, provide information on ways to customize the vehicles to Kansas City’s demands and give them insights about spare parts, maintenance and repairs.

One frequent critic of the streetcar project calls the trip a waste of money.

“This smacks of a taxpayer-funded junket,” said Sue Burke, a downtown property owner who has opposed the downtown sales tax and property tax increases to help pay the cost of the $100 million streetcar system, which will run from the River Market to near Union Station.

Burke noted the vehicles will be assembled in Elmira, N.Y., and questioned why city officials can’t get all the information they need from there.

“Looking at how the streetcars operate in Europe has nothing to do with how they operate in Kansas City,” she said.

Kansas City announced in October that it was buying four Urbos 3 platform vehicles built by CAF USA Inc., a subsidiary of the Spanish rail firm Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles. The vehicles, with an $18 million purchase price, are assembled in New York in part to comply with “buy American” requirements attached to federal grants for streetcar projects.

McIntyre said there is only one purely American streetcar manufacturer and its vehicles didn’t meet Kansas City’s specifications. She said Kansas City chose CAF over a competing firm because its vehicles better met the city’s requirements and had a better price.

McIntyre said the Urbos 3 platform vehicles don’t yet operate anywhere in the U.S., so the trip to Spain lets them ride the vehicles and see them in operation. They will tour the company’s maintenance facilities and factories, including engine and wheel manufacturing sites.

City Manager Troy Schulte said he was fine with the trip because the alternative was to have 12 engineers from Spain come here, at Kansas City’s expense.

“I’m going into the transit business,” Schulte said, adding that the trip should help protect the city’s $18 million investment.

Virginia Verdeja, vice president of sales for CAF USA, said it is customary for American cities to send a contingent to Spain. The company has hosted groups from the Washington metro system and the Sacramento, Calif., and Pittsburgh light-rail systems.

She said it’s a chance for the Americans to see the car shells, which are manufactured in Spain, and the complicated, computerized systems for motors, doors, heating and cooling devices, and other features.

It’s no touristy vacation, she said.

“They spend all the time at the factory, in meetings, from morning to evening,” Verdeja said.

Kansas City is piggybacking on Cincinnati in its streetcar purchase. McIntyre noted that Cincinnati also sent a contingent to Spain to discuss its streetcar needs last year. According to WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, then-mayor Mark Mallory and four staffers took a 10-day trip to Spain in February and March to tour the streetcar facilities and to try to attract new companies to Cincinnati.

That trip cost $21,000 but was paid for by a business contribution, according to WCPO.

Chris Eilerman, assistant to the city manager and Cincinnati’s streetcar project manager, said it was worthwhile to meet the engineers face to face and to see how all the vehicle parts fit together and how they operate.

“It’s important to get off to a good start,” he said. “It’s such an important piece of equipment.”