Plans for expanded Kansas City streetcar service took another step forward as a handful of voters approved special sales and property taxes to extend the downtown route along Main Street to UMKC, election officials announced Wednesday.
The two ballot questions on the proposed $227 million project passed by 3-to-1 margins, after a six-week mail-in election for residents of a newly created Transportation Development District (TDD). It is bounded by the Missouri River, 53rd Street, State Line Road and Campbell Street.
Voters approved the property tax initiative 2,529 to 858; the special sales tax initiative passed 2,588 to 834.
Residents had from early May through June 12 to return their ballots, but less than 10 percent of the approximately 35,000 eligible voters participated, according to the Kansas City Election Board. Voters had to obtain a ballot then have it notarized before sending it back to Jackson County Circuit Court.
The vote authorized the TDD board of directors to impose a new 1-cent sales tax for the next 30 years. Property owners generally within one-third of a mile from Main Street — but beyond in some cases — will face an additional 25-year property tax assessment. It will cover homes, businesses and even traditionally tax-exempt institutions such as churches.
According to figures provided by streetcar officials, based on 2015 tax levy rates, the owner of a commercial property with a market value of $1 million would pay an additional $1,536 in annual property taxes. A home valued at $200,000 would cost an extra $266 a year. A tax-exempt property worth at least $1 million would pay $896 annually.
The measures are expected to generate revenues of about $25 million a year. The money will go toward operations and maintenance of the existing 2.2-mile "starter" line from River Market to Union Station as well as construction of the 3.7-mile extension. Officials hope to begin expanded service by 2023.
Taxes will not be collected until construction is ready to begin.
But the tax funds will not come close to covering the cost of building the new line. The KC Streetcar Authority will also seek $100 million in federal funds. Earlier this year Congress rolled back the Trump administration's proposed deep cuts in transit funding. But the outlook for help from Washington remains uncertain.
Officials expressed confidence about the city's prospects.
"With the success of the downtown line we really have a story to tell," said Jan Marcason, chair of the Main Street TDD board of directors. Officials said the line has generated 4 million rides since beginning service two years ago.
Another unresolved funding issue involves the 157-acre UMKC campus, which stands to be a major beneficiary of expanded service. School officials contend that as a state government entity, UMKC is not required to pay a special assessment. But a school spokesman said it is negotiating with the city.
"We recognize that the streetcar extension from downtown to UMKC’s Volker campus would offer many transportation benefits to our students, faculty and staff," spokesman John Martellaro said in an email. "The launch is still several years away, but we will continue to work with city leaders as the project progresses to determine an appropriate level of support from UMKC."
Plans call for the Main Street extension, if completed, to have stops at 27th Street, 31st Street, Armour Boulevard, 39th Street, 43rd Street, 45th Street, somewhere between Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, and 51st Street.
Wednesday's results complete a trilogy of elections to put the Main Street extension on track. In two contests last year, voters agreed to form the district itself and elect a board of directors. Transit advocates, who gathered at the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce board room to hear the final numbers, expressed their elation with the outcome.
"Just excited. It's really going to move forward," said David Johnson, a member of the Main Street TDD board.
The returns also represent yet another setback for opponents who regard the streetcar as a waste of money and the elections paving the way for it unconstitutional.
Attorney Sherry DeJanes, a leader of SMART KC, the political committee leading the opposition, said she expected the tax measures to pass but was surprised by the lopsided outcome.
"It's a demonstration of why we need to not have these kinds of elections," DeJanes said, noting that her group was outspent 6-to-1 by Connect KC, the pro-streetcar committee.
After voters approved creation of the TDD last August, a group of Kansas City residents, led by DeJanes, challenged the election in court. State law provides for mail-in ballots in TDD elections. But the group asserted that the mail-in process was unduly burdensome, especially to low-income and disabled residents. Of the roughly 5,000 ballots mailed by the Jackson County Circuit Court, which administered the election, about a third went unreturned.
Earlier this month a Jackson County Circuit Court judge dismissed the suit.
"We need to seek a legislative change," DeJanes said of the state election law.
In January, the Kansas City Council took the rare step of invalidating the results of a ballot question, narrowly passed citywide by voters in August 2017, that barred any expansion of the downtown line without a citywide election.
Council members said they were advised by counsel that the measure put the city in legal jeopardy because it would violate agreements with the Kansas City Streetcar Authority.