Government & Politics

Northland streetcar option emerges, but costs are daunting

As Kansas City ponders possible streetcar extensions south of the Missouri River, a new study shows that expanding streetcars north of the river probably would be even more financially challenging.

“It’s expensive,” acknowledged Tom Gerend, assistant transportation director for the Mid-America Regional Council, a partner in the study. “It’s a steep hill to climb.”

It’s so expensive in fact — more than $100 million — that even a sales and property tax for all of North Kansas City would get the tracks only partway into the city, an option that most people agree isn’t ideal.

“We’re finding the (funding) model is problematic,” said Mike Smith, interim city administrator. He said a local taxing plan similar to the one used to pay for the downtown Kansas City starter line won’t work because North Kansas City just doesn’t have the necessary population and business density.

But that doesn’t mean people are giving up on Northland streetcars. Gerend and others said the obstacles just mean North Kansas City probably will have to partner with other Northland communities and the state of Missouri for something to happen.

Planners recently unveiled the results of a $600,000 feasibility study that began last fall, looking at how to get the streetcars over the river and through North Kansas City.

Engineers ruled out the possibility of building a dedicated streetcar bridge over the Missouri River because the $40 million to $60 million price tag was excessive and had little chance of federal funding help. Federal funding depends in part on a project’s economic development potential, and there is no economic development activity on a bridge spanning nearly a mile of existing heavy railroad tracks and the river itself to get into North Kansas City.

Instead, engineers determined it is feasible to build a streetcar line from River Market over a reconfigured Heart of America Bridge at an estimated cost of $25 million. Streetcars could run on the bridge’s east side, while the existing bicycle/pedestrian lane would be relocated to the bridge’s west side.

The bridge is a major car and truck route, but a traffic study showed streetcars would not severely increase congestion, said Doug Moore, transit project manager with the engineering firm HDR. Moore headed the North Kansas City study.

It’s possible the Missouri Department of Transportation could provide funding for this bridge crossing, but that remains a big question, Gerend said.

Once the streetcars get to North Kansas City, engineers recommended they run on single track in an unused rail right-of-way just east of Burlington Street to 12th Avenue and then in what’s now the median of Burlington from 12th to 18th avenues. They could then run double-track — which allows more streetcars to run more often — from 18th Avenue to near the northern city limits at 29th Avenue.

That would position the line to serve the rest of the communities in the Northland, including the portion of Kansas City north of the river.

But the cost just to go 1.2 miles from the southern city limits to 18th Avenue was estimated at $56.6 million in 2020 dollars, and the cost to go the full 1.86 miles through the city to 29th Avenue, including double track, was estimated at $105.6 million.

Planners then analyzed the potential of a special taxing district for all of North Kansas City, just like the one approved for downtown Kansas City. They found that, even with a 1-cent sales tax and 25-year special residential and commercial property taxes, plus a generous federal matching grant, the revenue generated would only be enough to get the streetcars to 18th Avenue. That’s south of where the vast majority of North Kansas City’s 4,200 residents live.

“It doesn’t meet all of our goals,” said Sara Copeland, community development director for North Kansas City, adding that a major impetus was to get the streetcars through the city to connect its residents to downtown Kansas City and to promote more economic development. “We’re not there yet.”

This debate is starting just as Kansas City is in court seeking permission for the public to vote on creating a large new taxing district south of the Missouri River, to expand the downtown starter line by about eight miles.

Kansas City Councilman Russ Johnson, who lives in the Northland, has been a big advocate for streetcars. But he said the North Kansas City experience shows that “it’s hard to have rail where there isn’t economic density.” He said rail works better with the development patterns south of the Missouri River than north.

“I haven’t given up yet,” he said about taking rail to the Northland. “But I don’t have the answers right now.”

Some North Kansas City residents say that, in the same way that downtown Kansas City took the plunge with streetcars, North Kansas City has to get started.

“I don’t want to wait 20 years,” said Ryan Tull, who works in residential real estate and sees streetcars as a way to attract young adults to North Kansas City, while also joining in downtown Kansas City’s resurgence.

He recalled that in 2008, North Kansas City voters approved a half-cent sales tax for light rail, but that plan was contingent on Kansas City voters approving a companion measure, which failed.

He thinks North Kansas Citians would still support higher taxes for a streetcar system, although he said the system needs to get as far as 29th Avenue to make sense for the city.

Dave Wood, a member of North Kansas City’s Planning Commission, agreed. He said he and his wife would love to ride the streetcar to City Market instead of having to drive downtown and fight for a parking space.

“I like it,” he said of the plan. “I’m excited.”

Wood said he was never under the delusion that it would be cheap, and any local tax could be a tough sell. But he said if the community views it as an investment, they’ll realize how much promise it has as a development catalyst.

Still, some in the business community say there are too many unanswered questions.

Steven Chase, a vice president with First Missouri Bank at 19th and Burlington Street, said he would need to know a lot more about ridership and the economic development potential to judge whether the benefits are worth the costs. Those details are not yet available.

Gerend said that one option many North Kansas City residents appear to favor is looking at ways to improve local bus service in the short term. He said the city could seek a MAX bus rapid transit service like in Kansas City while leaders explore a regional funding approach to Northland rail.

A final written report for North Kansas City, including public feedback, is expected soon.