My first reaction to KC’s new streetcar? This is pretty cool.
Within a quarter mile of leaving Union Station on that rainy Sunday evening of the streetcar’s opening weekend, my thought was: The city has got to expand this thing.
Turns out lots of people are way ahead of me.
Sources at City Hall and around town are telling me that a group of midtown residents backed by the KC Regional Transit Alliance is close to announcing a major expansion plan that would run the fledgling system from the station to the Country Club Plaza and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
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The announcement could be just weeks away.
The expanded route carries an enormous utilitarian upside in that thousands more Kansas City residents could then take advantage of a system that now ranks as a 2.2-mile novelty in the eyes of many.
The move seeks to capitalize on the ongoing buzz that has surrounded the launch of the streetcar service. Ridership has exceeded expectations. River Market restaurants are hiring extra workers. Planners hope to use that kind of momentum to slingshot Phase II into reality at a far faster clip than we saw for the starter line.
Still, it’s going to be years, not months, before any streetcars are rolling past the J.C. Nichols fountain at 47th and Main.
The process of opening the River Market to Union Station route proved to be an arduous seven-year journey marked by lawsuits, controversy, desperate battles over federal money, and more starts and stops than, well, a streetcar ride.
The timing of Phase II already is said to be embroiled in controversy.
Alliance members and other advocates were eager to announce expansion plans around the time of the starter line opening but were persuaded to hold off by top city leaders.
Among those talking about the project are City Council members, rail advocates and other city officials who are aware of the plans. They agreed to talk about the anticipated announcement on the condition they not be identified because they don’t want to undermine the hoopla when the group shows off its plans.
The thinking for delaying the announcement: You don’t open a fantastic new restaurant and invite food critics on the same day.
Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte are described as not quite as eager to launch into streetcar expansion mode — at least not yet. Expansion of KCI is in a holding pattern, and the city is contemplating a major general obligation bond issue as early as next spring aimed at improving city infrastructure. Going to voters too often too soon could prove overwhelming — and calamitous.
Streetcar expansion — once derided by a certain mayor turned congressman as “touristy froufrou” — could undermine prospects for the bond issue, some city leaders fear. A certain segment of voters view streetcars as an extravagance at a time when many think the city needs steadier focus on basic services.
But transit advocates are said to be weary of waiting. Kansas City, they think, is already years behind peer cities when it comes to mass transit. They say the time to launch Phase II is right now, just as the city remains abuzz over streetcars and their potential to revive some of Kansas City’s oldest corridors.
Pursuing federal funding takes time. To get some of that federal dough, Phase II will have to be kept beneath a $250 million price so the city doesn’t wind up in a big-league category and a can’t-win fight against major cities that want expanded systems too.
Dense traffic congestion, which KC lacks, gives the bigger cities priority.
As it stands, the 3.7-mile extension is expected to bump up against that lid.
The prospect for more federal funding, which covered roughly a third of the starter line’s $100 million price, is uncertain. What is certain is that the Obama administration is regarded as transit-friendly, and that may not be the case in a possible Trump presidency.
The Main Street corridor backed streetcars before, so voter support is anticipated. That happened in 2014, when voters west of Troost approved an ambitious expansion plan only to see the entire proposal die when East Side voters turned thumbs down.
Even then, controversy has surrounded the small, localized elections that fund the bulk of the streetcar lines. The taxing district for the starter line was created with just 550 votes cast, about 350 in favor of the plan. Some thought the approval mechanism was fatally flawed, amounting to a rigged election.
The funding districts survived court challenges and may be forced to again.
When the starter line opened, Mayor James proclaimed that the project was exactly what’s needed for Kansas City to remain in the big leagues.
“You have to be bold,” he said.
Now that prospect is in the offing again.