Government & Politics

Kansas City streetcar delay is not as bad as originally feared

A vehicle in production at the streetcar vehicle manufacturer, CAF, in Elmira, N.Y.
A vehicle in production at the streetcar vehicle manufacturer, CAF, in Elmira, N.Y. kcmo.gov Facebook page

Kansas City’s streetcar vehicle delivery delay will not be as bad as city officials had feared, but they still can’t guarantee the system will be up and running with passengers in time for March Madness at the Sprint Center.

The manufacturer, CAF USA, had told the city in July that the delivery date might be as late as mid-December, which raised the possibility that the streetcars might not be fully tested and operational for the Big 12 conference men’s basketball tournament.

But delivery of the first of four vehicles is now expected in Kansas City by Oct. 29, Deputy Public Works Director Ralph Davis said Thursday.

Davis traveled to Elmira, N.Y., earlier this week to meet with CAF USA officials and see the streetcars as they were being custom built. He pressed the manufacturer to speed up the assembly line process and to make sure the vehicles get delivered more quickly.

He told the Kansas City Streetcar Authority and the City Council on Thursday that he was pleased with that progress.

“We’ve got a significant four-week savings on the schedule,” he said.

But Davis added that he’s still not satisfied with CAF’s proposed delivery dates for the other three vehicles — which he declined to specify — and said he’ll keep pushing them to accelerate the pace.

He admitted he doesn’t know when the system might be ready for public use.

“The actual start of operation is the hardest question to answer because it has the most variables,” he told the council. “There’s a lot of wildcards.”

Davis continued to emphasize that his top priority is a safe, highly functioning system rather than meeting an artificial start date.

The vehicle delivery schedule is important because Mayor Sly James has said the new streetcar system should be running in time to carry the crowds that will descend on downtown for the March 9 start of the Big 12 conference men’s basketball tournament.

Since the vehicles need months of testing before they can carry passengers, the city was counting on a late September delivery to allow for that testing window of time.

After Davis’ presentation Thursday, James said he remains optimistic the city can open its two-mile downtown streetcar line to the public in time for the Big 12.

“It’s really just an opportunity to get it going off with a bang,” James said, noting it would be a huge boon to downtown merchants and restaurants that have been coping with streetcar construction for more than a year. Thousands of out-of-town guests could ride the streetcar from their hotels to River Market or Crown Center and points in between.

“It’ll be awhile before we have a crowd like that in again,” James said, although he added that if the streetcar system can’t meet that deadline, it won’t be crushing.

Public Works Director Sherri McIntyre said she and Davis haven’t given up on the early March opening date and will push hard for it. But if that proves impossible, she told the council, she expects the system can surely open by June.

Although the delay is disappointing, people can still have confidence that the city chose the right streetcar vehicle, Streetcar Authority Executive Director Tom Gerend told the council.

“It’s going to be the most technologically advanced, modern streetcar vehicle in the country,” said Gerend, who accompanied Davis to the CAF meetings.

Gerend also said CAF has clearly gotten the message that the city isn’t happy about the delivery delay and is working hard to rectify the situation.

CAF USA spokeswoman Virginia Verdeja was traveling Thursday and did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The four streetcars, which together cost about $18 million, were originally supposed to be delivered by June 10. That day came and went, but Kansas City officials weren’t too worried because the September/October delivery time would correspond with completion of the track, station and overhead electric work.

When the vehicle manufacturer extended the expected delivery date to December, Davis and other city officials pushed back and said that was unacceptable.

The city has also been billing CAF liquidated damages of $3,300 per day since June 11, although some critics have said those damages are too paltry to compel the manufacturer to dramatically improve its performance.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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