Government & Politics

KC Council throws out vote, so streetcar expansion can move toward UMKC, riverfront

The Kansas City Council took the unusual step Thursday of invalidating the results of a ballot question, passed by voters last August, that barred City Hall from planning any extension of downtown’s streetcar system without a citywide election.

The 2017 petition initiative, put forward by streetcar opponents who regard the existing $102 million line as a waste of money, passed 51 percent to 49 percent. Northland voters provided the winning edge.

The council’s 10-2 vote was based on advice from city attorneys, who said the measure as written had legal issues that exposed the city to possible lawsuits.

Attorneys said the measure put the city in the position of violating agreements with the Kansas City Streetcar Authority, the non-profit that operates the 2.2 mile route, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority and the downtown taxing district created by voters to support the venture.

Plans to extend the route, south on Main Street to UMKC and north to the Berkley Riverfront Park, are already in development. The Streetcar Authority and Kansas City Area Transportation Authority are collaborating on a $1 million study led by HDR Engineering.

The system, which began operations in May 2016, currently links the River Market and Crown Center.

Municipal lawyers also maintained that the ban against the city planning for an extension illegally interfered with the city’s control of the public right-of-way.

“We are obligated to protect the city’s interests,” said Councilman Jermaine Reed, chairman of the council’s transportation and infrastructure committee.

Councilwoman Heather Hall said that disregarding a decision by voters sets a dangerous precedent.

“I have a real problem with this,” Hall said. “We live in a country where voters’ voices are supposed to be heard.”

Proponents of the move said that while the ordinance approved Thursday strips out the legally problematic portions of the ballot question, it retains the requirement of a citywide election for future expansion of the system.

However, it defines “future” as any expansion beyond the ones currently envisioned. That effectively grandfathers the UMKC and waterfront plans out of the reach of opponents.

Another in a series of streetcar elections is scheduled for later this year. Voters living within the transportation district will decide on sales and property tax increases to help pay the local costs of a project that could be more than $227 million.