The Kansas City Council will take up a measure early next year that seeks to overcome an Aug. 8 vote hindering streetcar expansion.
Six council members, including Mayor Sly James, have sponsored an ordinance that would modify the measure that reined in the city’s participation in streetcar expansion. The ordinance will be considered by the full City Council in January and would require at least nine of the 13 council votes to pass.
This action was prompted by an Aug. 8 election in which voters citywide narrowly approved a petition initiative from streetcar opponents, 51 percent to 49 percent. The citizens’ petition initiative, Question 1 on the Kansas City ballot, prohibited Kansas City municipal government from planning or implementing any fixed-rail transit system without citywide approval. Voters south of the Missouri River would have allowed streetcar expansion, but Northland voters gave the petition opposing expansion the win.
Passage of Question 1 cast doubt on plans to extend the existing downtown streetcar system south on Main Street to the University of Missouri-Kansas City. But streetcar supporters argue that Question 1 had serious legal flaws and interfered with existing contracts with the Kansas City Streetcar Authority and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. The city was a partner in planning that had already begun for an expanded streetcar district south of downtown and another shorter extension north of downtown to Berkley Riverfront Park.
Streetcar advocates also point to the fact that just before the citywide vote, the Kansas City Election Board had certified a positive vote Aug. 4 in favor of southward streetcar expansion. In that special mail-in election, Midtown voters authorized formation of a new streetcar district as the first step to taking the streetcar from Union Station to UMKC.
The new ordinance would amend the language of the petition initiative to recognize those contractual obligations. It would still require a citywide vote for any future expansions beyond the ones already contemplated.
“It manages to respect the August 8 vote but also respects prior contracts,” said Councilman Quinton Lucas, one of the six council sponsors. “We’ll need a citywide election for any citywide expansion.”
Councilman Scott Wagner, another sponsor, said the city’s law department felt the petition initiative was legally flawed, in that it prohibited any city transit planning and imposed a $1,000-per-day fine for noncompliance.
“I think there has always been a recognition that several of the things within that (initiative) language were either unenforceable or illegal,” Wagner said.
Both Wagner and Lucas realize people may wonder why the city had an Aug. 8 election on something it thought was illegal. But the Missouri Supreme Court has said that citizen initiatives with enough petition signatures specified by the city charter must go on a Kansas City ballot. If those initiatives are legally flawed, then the city charter says they can be overturned or changed within a year by nine council votes. After a year, they can be overturned by seven council votes.
Wagner and Lucas did not yet know if there are nine votes to alter the Aug. 8 measure. The other current sponsors are Mayor James, Jolie Justus, Jermaine Reed and Scott Taylor.
Streetcar opponent Sherri DeJanes, who spearheaded the Aug. 8 petition initiative, said Friday she had not yet seen the latest proposal and would have to evaluate whether to oppose it. She is already opposing in court the mail-in streetcar election process that was conducted in Midtown. That lawsuit is pending.
Streetcar opponents have argued that Kansas City rail transit is a waste of money and that any project of this magnitude deserves citywide voter consideration.
Streetcar advocate David Johnson said it’s important to get clarity on the impact of the Aug. 8 vote and to allow the city’s participation in the two expansion plans that were already underway prior to the vote. He said people should realize the city’s long-term financial commitment is capped at about $2 million that it already contributes annually to the downtown streetcar system. Even with streetcar expansion, that city contribution would not increase.
Kansas City Streetcar Authority spokeswoman Donna Mandelbaum said the city has refrained from participation in the planning since Aug. 8. But she said the city’s planning expertise and participation in future federal funding grant requests would be very helpful, especially since the streetcar would operate in city streets.
“What this ordinance would allow is that the city staff can come back into the team and help with the planning of it,” Mandelbaum said. “The city brings along resources and expertise that we really need.”