Kansas City Mayor Sly James says it’s crucial that the new downtown streetcar system can carry passengers in time for next March’s Big 12 conference men’s basketball tournament.
But city officials acknowledged Tuesday that there may be a significant delay in the delivery of the streetcars, which could adversely affect that schedule.
While the actual track work is done and the electrical wiring should be ready by the end of September — plenty of time to test the system and begin public operations by early March — now the streetcar delivery is becoming a worrisome problem, city officials admitted.
“We’re getting to a point where it is becoming critical,” James said Tuesday after being briefed by staff about the potential problem.
The vehicle manufacturer has said the cars may not be ready until the end of this year, but Kansas City officials say that is unacceptable.
“They need to do everything in their power to get us those cars on a timetable where we can get them tested and get them up and running on our deadline,” James said. “That was the agreement we made. That’s the agreement I want them to stick to.”
The four streetcar vehicles are part of Kansas City’s $100 million, two-mile streetcar system that will run from the River Market to near Crown Center.
Kansas City has a contract for delivery of Urbos 3 platform vehicles built by CAF USA Inc., a subsidiary of the Spanish rail firm Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles. The four vehicles, which together cost about $18 million, were begun in Spain. But final assembly is being done in Elmira, N.Y., in part to comply with “buy American” requirements attached to federal grants for streetcar projects.
The delays are partly due to the complications of transporting parts from Europe and partly to worker training in the U.S.
City Manager Troy Schulte said Tuesday the contract, signed in November 2013, called for the first car to be delivered by June 10. City officials were notified shortly before that time that delivery would be delayed until late September, but they weren’t terribly concerned because they knew the downtown construction wouldn’t be finished until about that same time.
Each vehicle must be tested for 300 miles along the route, and Schulte said consultants had advised that a late September delivery would provide ample time to complete testing for a March 1 public operations start.
But now, Schulte and others said, that time frame could be derailed.
On July 17, Public Works deputy director Ralph Davis learned from CAF that the vehicles might not be finished until year-end. Davis said he told CAF that wasn’t acceptable and flew to New York the next week for intense negotiations with the company on how to meet the city’s required delivery schedule.
CAF officials did not respond to requests from The Star for comment about the problem and the ongoing negotiations.
Davis said the discussions were productive and he still hopes that something can be worked out to accommodate Kansas City’s plans to open the system before the March 9 start of the Big 12 tournament, which will draw thousands of visitors to downtown.
But Davis also said he won’t know until early September when CAF really believes it can start vehicle delivery. And Davis emphasized that his first priority is quality and safety, not meeting a particular start date. There are also aspects of the system testing, he said, that can’t be rushed.
“I would like nothing else but to have a party with the Big 12 and have everybody riding my cars brand new,” he said. “But at the same time I would never want to have something (bad) happen.”
James agreed safety and quality must be the top priority, but said he still wants CAF to meet the required timeline.
He said that everything the city had control over, such as the streetcar route construction, has gone well and is on time and on budget, so CAF needs to step up and do the job right.
“It is not acceptable for us to be late,” he said. “We’re ready to rock and roll.”
While the negotiations continue, CAF faces financial penalties of $1,000 per day for missing the June 10 delivery date. The city is billing CAF for those damages, which are capped at $1.2 million, although it hasn’t received any money yet.
Concerns about the vehicle delay were apparent to Davis and a few others even as Kansas City held a public rally July 29 to mark completion of track construction and to let people view a finished streetcar stop. Several hundred people turned out for a lively party and speeches in the River Market, but nothing was said about the vehicle issue.
James said Tuesday that the rally was an appropriate way for the city to celebrate the streetcar track completion. He said he wasn’t bothered that he hadn’t been told before the rally about the vehicle issue, and he was confident that city staffers were working professionally to try to solve the problem.
Still, James said Tuesday it has now become a bigger concern.
“The sky is still not falling,” he said. “But it’s getting dark.”
Davis noted that CAF is a very experienced streetcar manufacturer, but it normally makes the vehicles in Europe. Kansas City’s four vehicles, and five others that are going to Cincinnati, are the first being assembled in the U.S.
“They made significant modifications of the European design to fit into the American market,” Davis said. The first two vehicles that were assembled are bound for Cincinnati, and Davis said CAF worked out some bugs in those before starting on one of Kansas City’s vehicles, the third in the production line.
Kansas City officials aren’t the only ones upset with CAF. Cincinnati officials have fired off a letter to the company expressing frustration about the delay and threatening legal action, according to a Monday story in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
There are a number of reasons for the delay, including training of workers in New York and transportation of parts from Spain. Schulte said one big delay occurred when CAF failed to get parts onto a boat traveling from Europe.
“For that June delivery date, they missed their boat that takes it from Spain,” Schulte said. “That cost them a month.”
Hernandez said Kansas City is negotiating with CAF over such things as whether it can add overtime shifts or reconfigure the assembly line to speed up the work.
Schulte noted the city could get by with just two vehicles during the public start-up if it has to.
Davis said CAF understands the city’s position, that they’ve got to do better.
“They’re looking back at what they can do, and it does look like they’re taking very positive steps to look at their choke points,” Davis said. “How they can speed things up.”