KC Streetcar

Voters approve new taxing district for Kansas City streetcar expansion

Voters have approved the creation of a new taxing district that could eventually lead to expansion of the downtown streetcar system to the University of Missouri Kansas City.

The vote was 2,458 in favor of and 1,048 against the formation of an expanded streetcar taxing district past downtown along the Main Street corridor through midtown. The vote came after an unusual mail-in ballot process, and the election results were certified Friday at the Kansas City Election Board offices.

“This was critical, because if this didn’t pass, the whole thing was stopped in its tracks,” said David Johnson, a key proponent of streetcar expansion.

But this is just the first step in a three-step process to actually build the expanded rail system south from Union Station for 3.75 miles to 51st and Brookside. This vote establishes the transportation development district boundaries to help pay for streetcar expansion. Two more elections are required: to elect a streetcar district board and to approve the specific local sales and property taxes needed to help fund the expansion, which is estimated to cost about $227 million.

The taxing district boundaries are generally from the Missouri River to 53rd Street and from State Line Road to Campbell Street. That part of town has about 30,000 registered voters, but only 5,752 correctly followed the process this spring to apply for a ballot.

In the end, only 3,642 people returned notarized mail-in ballots to the Jackson County Circuit Court, and 136 of those were rejected, mostly because of improper notarization. This was an unusual voting process authorized by Missouri law and approved by the Jackson County Circuit Court to establish the transportation development district.

Obstacles still loom for streetcar supporters, beginning with a citywide election Tuesday that could stymie expansion before it really gets going.

That’s because streetcar opponents have a petition initiative on the Aug. 8 ballot. Question 1 on Kansas City’s ballot seeks to prohibit any city planning or construction on an expanded streetcar system without citywide voter approval. And since streetcar expansion south on Main Street would require the city’s participation, voter approval of Question 1 could inhibit that project.

Sherry DeJanes, a leader of the opposition group, said she wasn’t surprised by Friday’s outcome, since the new streetcar district had built-in support from downtown voters. She said her group is gaining momentum and focusing its efforts now on Tuesday’s citywide vote. She said opponents will also work hard to defeat the actual tax increases that will be required for streetcar expansion.

Still, supporters heralded Friday’s result as the start of what many say is an essential move forward for the popular downtown streetcar system.

The vote came after many months of planning and legal work by streetcar supporters. They petitioned the court in June 2016, just one month after the downtown streetcar system opened, to start the expansion process. In September, the court approved the three-step election plan that led to this first election.

The next election is expected this fall, at area polling places, to select the district’s board of directors. Then a third election, this one again by mail, would be held in early 2018 to approve the 1-cent sales tax throughout the entire district, plus special property taxes within about  1/3 -mile of the route.

The expanded system would also need 50 percent federal funding, and that’s uncertain. With all these steps and a lengthy construction schedule, it’s unlikely the system would open before 2023.

Supporters argue expansion will create a rail transit spine that can forge a great connection between the Country Club Plaza and downtown, continuing the revitalization of the Main Street corridor. Critics say the election process is difficult and anti-democratic, and that streetcars are a huge waste of money that will place an unfair tax burden on a small portion of the Kansas City population living near the rail route.

Complicating matters further is that transit activist Clay Chastain also has a petition initiative, Question 2, on Tuesday’s Kansas City ballot. It seeks a  3/8 -cent sales tax increase for 25 years for a larger rapid rail system in its own right-of-way, generally from Vivion Road in the Northland to the Kansas City Zoo.

Critics say the plan isn’t workable and the sales tax won’t raise nearly enough money to build Chastain’s route, even with federal funding. Chastain says it would incorporate the existing 2-mile streetcar system but is preferable to streetcars moving in traffic, and the city can build as much of the route as is possible. But if Question 2 gets voter approval, the City Council will have to decide if it’s viable.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley