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What you need to know about KC’s downtown streetcars

Downtown motorists are learning to share the roads with Kansas City’s new streetcars, as testing of the vehicles continued Friday. The system, which will run from River Market to Union Station mostly along Main Street, opens this spring.
Downtown motorists are learning to share the roads with Kansas City’s new streetcars, as testing of the vehicles continued Friday. The system, which will run from River Market to Union Station mostly along Main Street, opens this spring. jledford@kcstar.com

As Kansas City’s downtown streetcar system prepares for a momentous official launch, encounters between the streetcars and the public will become much more frequent in coming weeks.

With a grand opening planned for sometime in April and a soft opening possible in late March, the public will see the streetcar visibility ramp up significantly, according to Tom Gerend, executive director of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority.

Testing is well underway on the first two vehicles; the third vehicle arrives in late January and the fourth in March. Each must be tested for at least 300 miles on the track, so that will involve many hours of tryouts, both daytime and night.

And that will affect everything from motorists and pedestrians to delivery vehicles and bicyclists. Everyone will need to learn a bit of streetcar etiquette and become familiar with the new rules of the road, including staying within those white parking lines that now run parallel to the rails. Parking tickets won’t be cheap.

It’s the culmination of years of planning to create a $100-million, two-mile starter route from River Market to Union Station, primarily on Main Street. Downtown boosters are along for the ride, hoping the streetcar line will provide another shot of adrenaline for the heart of the city.

As the public grand opening nears, Streetcar Authority officials are starting to field all sorts of questions from residents, visitors and rail enthusiasts. They provided answers to The Star and will continue updating and supplementing information on their website, kcstreetcar.org.

Q: How much will it cost?

A: It will be free to ride, and passengers can hop on and off throughout the two-mile route.

While there’s certainly a cost to running the system, the authority and downtown business owners determined several years ago that eliminating the fare would maximize ridership and allow residents and visitors to use the system more easily. Starter routes in other cities have also been free. It is expected Kansas City’s streetcar service will remain free unless and until the route is extended.

“This is really about connecting our businesses, and we want to eliminate the barrier,” Gerend said. The property and sales taxes in the downtown streetcar taxing district are exceeding projections and will more than cover the $2.5 million year-one operating and maintenance contract.

Q: Will a free ride make the streetcar a magnet for homeless people to ride all day?

A: Gerend points out the ride from River Market terminates at Union Station, and everyone will be required to get off with all their belongings. They can get back on, but people won’t be able to ride all day without interruption. Also, each vehicle carries a maximum of about 150 people but has only about 34 seats, so it’s expected most people will stand and ride for a short time.

“It’s not going to be a place where you can set up camp,” said Kansas City Police Maj. Karl Oakman, who has been involved in extensive discussions about streetcar security. The department plans to have off-duty uniformed officers available at streetcar stops and on the vehicles at strategic times, to provide both security and information.

“We are still working that out as far as staffing levels and hours,” Oakman said. “We are making sure we make it a safe and enjoyable form of transportation in the downtown area.”

Q: How long is the ride?

A: From Third and Grand in the River Market to Pershing and Main at Union Station, it takes about 13  1/2 minutes. That’s stopping at each stop for 15 seconds. The entire round-trip takes nearly 30 minutes, including the break at Union Station. The streetcars travel with traffic and must obey traffic signals.

Q: How many stops, and does it stop at each point?

A: It has 16 stops, one every two to three blocks. Initially, the streetcar will halt at each stop, although that may change as ridership patterns become clearer.

Q: How fast can the streetcar go?

A: A modern streetcar can go fast but will obey downtown traffic limits. It generally travels about 25 mph with traffic, although it can accelerate to the 35 mph speed limit from Fourth and Delaware to Seventh and Main and south of 20th on Main.

Q: How does the streetcar interact with traffic, bicyclists and pedestrians?

A: It is big like a bus, although much quieter, and it can’t swerve out of the way, so motorists and others need to use caution. Each vehicle is 77 feet, 8 inches long, 12 feet tall and 78,000 pounds, so it can take awhile to brake and speed up. As the streetcars accelerate, they ring a bell. And they can sound a horn for people to get out of the way.

During testing, a few vehicles have cut in front of the streetcar near intersections, although there have been no collisions. It’s expected some traffic will migrate to other streets once the streetcars start carrying passengers on Main.

The streetcar.org website has safety videos addressing motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians. Communications coordinator Donna Mandelbaum said she is working with BikeWalkKC on more instructional materials and training so cyclists’ wheels won’t get caught in the tracks. Pedestrian crosswalks along the route have been restriped, and jaywalking is discouraged.

The streetcars have level boarding with the street and space on board for bicycles. Some streetcar seats can also be folded up to make room for strollers and wheelchairs.

Q: What are the hours, once it starts carrying passengers?

A: 6 a.m.-midnight Monday through Thursday; 6 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday; 7 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Weekdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. the vehicles are expected to run every 10 minutes. Early mornings, late evenings and on Saturdays they should run every 12 minutes. Sundays, every 18 minutes. Station stops will have real-time signage, detailing when the next vehicle is coming.

The operating schedule will usually require three vehicles, with the fourth as a spare.

Q: Where can people park to catch the streetcar?

A: A bus park-and-ride has spaces at Third and Grand in River Market, and Union Station has parking. People can also park in public garages along the route and on the street, including some on-street parking on Main Street.

Q: Have there been parking challenges?

A: Yes. Nineteen people were ticketed in November and 19 more in December for improper parking. The charge is $72.50, including a $50 fine and $22.50 non-moving violation court cost.

A white line runs parallel to the rails, and people need to make sure their cars, including side mirrors, are within the white line. During testing, streetcar operators stopped and located some motorists whose vehicles blocked tracks before calling a tow. But once the system goes public, tow trucks will be summoned promptly to allow the vehicles to maintain their schedule.

Q: What about delivery vehicles?

A: Some delivery vehicles have also blocked the tracks, but they are gradually finding other places to park, including in the median of Main Street between the northbound and southbound tracks at some points along the route.

“I have not heard of major frustration or a high degree of concern over this operating change,” said Bill Dietrich, president of the Downtown Council, which represents downtown businesses. “There are alternatives: other north/south streets, side streets, alleys, delivery bays and the timing of deliveries all come into play.”

Q: What about Wi-Fi?

A: That’s still a work in progress. Sprint is building a Wi-Fi network along and near the route to provide services to its customers. The city will use the network to provide free Wi-Fi access much the way restaurants and other venues do and to accomplish high-tech “Smart City” services such as smart lighting, cameras and sensors to help with traffic flow and government efficiency.

The Streetcar Authority is also working to make sure Wi-Fi is available on the vehicles and hopes to have it available in time for the public grand opening.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

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