Kansas City students react to proposed streetcar expansion
Kansas City’s downtown streetcar system had its grand opening just a month ago, but supporters have been clamoring to extend the system south on Main Street from Union Station to the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
And now there is a specific proposal to do that. A group of transit advocates has just filed a legal petition in Jackson County Circuit Court seeking to create an expanded streetcar taxing district to build on the 2.2-mile downtown starter route from River Market to Union Station.
A lot has to happen — including approval from voters living within that bigger taxing district — but it could eventually result in streetcars running 3.75 miles farther south on Main Street to just past the Country Club Plaza, at a capital cost of about $227 million. It would also add eight vehicles to the existing four-vehicle fleet.
“This corridor supports fixed-rail transit,” Matt Kauffman, chairman of the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance, said in briefing The Kansas City Star on the streetcar expansion plan. “This community that we are going to be running through historically has supported fixed-rail transit.”
The group plans a news conference Thursday to discuss its plan in greater detail.
Meanwhile, longtime transit activist Clay Chastain said he plans to turn in petitions Thursday to the city clerk’s office for a rival, citywide light-rail plan.
If he gets about 1,700 valid signatures, he wants city voters in November to approve a 25-year sales tax increase to support a $2 billion light-rail system from the airport to south Kansas City.
The two proposals have emerged barely a month after Kansas City opened its downtown streetcar route, to mostly rave reviews and packed vehicles.
The court petition was filed by Regional Transit Alliance members, who began working on it many months before the starter line opened.
Getting rail transit built is a very lengthy and involved process, so supporters say the earliest the new system would start to operate would probably be 2022.
That’s why they are already going to court, so soon after the downtown streetcar started public operations.
“It’s the rosiest time possible to strike,” said David Johnson, vice chair of the Regional Transit Alliance. Petitioners were urged to wait until after the April earnings tax election and the streetcar grand opening, he said, but didn’t want to let too much more time pass.
Johnson said he was aware of Chastain’s rival plan, but he and other supporters believe theirs is the more realistic plan that builds on longtime Kansas City studies and can garner federal funding support.
They say the downtown starter system shows an incremental approach can work in Kansas City, and this next incremental expansion is needed at this time. And they believe they will have support from City Council members and others excited about the progress already occurring on the downtown starter line.
Chastain, who has mounted numerous unsuccessful light-rail petition drives since the 1990s, said he was aware of the streetcar extension effort but still believes his is the better plan. He called the new streetcar system a “novelty.”
“It’s not what we really need in terms of modernizing our transit system, so we have an alternative plan for the voters,” he said.
Here’s what is currently known about the two plans.
Regional Transit Alliance plan
For the downtown streetcar starter route, the City Council led the charge. This time the effort is led by streetcar supporters and the private sector, not city leaders. But it attempts to pick up where a city-led effort failed in August 2014.
At that time, voters in a broad swath of Kansas City and Jackson County trounced plans for a $515 million, eight-mile streetcar expansion, with new routes south on Main Street and east on Independence and Linwood boulevards. But those precinct results showed that while the plan got crushed in neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue, it passed with voters west of Troost, in the Main Street corridor, 55 to 45 percent.
After that 2014 experience, Kauffman explained, the Regional Transit Alliance mobilized a coalition of Kansas City residents to pursue streetcar expansion where it clearly had support, along Main Street.
“This is creating a straight-line spine for the streetcar system,” he said, “which probably makes more sense than a streetcar system that starts to meander throughout the city. It’s a straight line and connects logical nodes of commerce.”
The proposal envisions a project with capital costs of $227 million (in 2019 dollars) south along Main Street, terminating at 51st Street and Brookside Boulevard and adding eight streetcar vehicles to the existing four-vehicle fleet.
It would be partly paid for much as the downtown starter route was, with a combination of a 1-cent sales tax within a set district boundary and property tax assessments for properties within one-third mile of the route.
The financial modeling was conservative in its revenue assumptions and did not include a fare to ride the streetcar. The current downtown streetcar is free to ride.
Downtown property owners who are in the existing transportation development district would be folded into the bigger district and would not see an increase above the streetcar taxes they already pay. The proposal also assumes about $114 million in Small Starts and other federal grants. Supporters say this Main Street route has always scored highest for federal funding in the city’s transit grant applications.
Under Missouri law, 50 or more registered voters in Kansas City/Jackson County can petition the court to determine that a new and expanded streetcar taxing district is legal, just as the previous downtown taxing district was found to be legal. But a lot of other pieces have to fall in place for streetcar expansion to actually occur.
First, the court will hold a hearing in a few months to determine whether the district is legal.
If the court approves, up to three different elections (two of them mail-in) will be required. Supporters say mail-in elections are less expensive and can be held anytime, whereas elections at polling places have limited scheduling options. Also, these types of ballots, by law, are very lengthy, so a mail-in election allows more time for people to review them and vote. That process could well drag into August 2017.
The downtown streetcar project has been controversial, not least because of the small downtown electorate that participated and because a relatively small group of property owners is bearing much of the cost. This new proposal could also draw significant opposition.
Some key civic leaders say it’s now time to try for a more regional transit approach, with more communities helping to fund and expand the metro area’s bus and rail system, rather than just a portion of Kansas City.
“The community needs a very positive experience with what’s going on and the sense of we’re not trying to pull a fast one this time,” said Jonathan Kemper, chairman of Commerce Bank Kansas City Region, which is paying significant taxes for the downtown streetcar. “This is the time to build the foundations of true regional trust and understanding.”
Chastain argues his plan gives Kansas City residents a real choice and a much more extensive rail transit system, from the airport to the Cerner Trails campus under construction in south Kansas City and from Union Station to the stadium complex.
He estimates it would cost $2 billion to build, or about $45 million per mile, although some light-rail systems have cost considerably more than that per mile. He assumes the federal government would provide $1 billion of that amount.
The local match would come from a 3/8-cent sales tax increase for 25 years, plus 3/8 cents that currently go for the bus system, once that tax expires in 2024.
It is not yet known whether the City Council will agree to put Chastain’s plan on the November ballot. But he said he has worked with the city attorney to alleviate language problems like those that have kept some of his past proposals off city ballots.