Government & Politics

Kansas City Council considers how to spend money for rejected streetcar extensions

Street signs promoting the new Kansas City downtown streetcar line are posted on poles along Main Street during the construction phase of the project.
Street signs promoting the new Kansas City downtown streetcar line are posted on poles along Main Street during the construction phase of the project. The Kansas City Star

Kansas City Council members will vote Thursday on a proposal to deal with the $10 million originally borrowed for streetcar extensions that voters then rejected.

Part of the money would be reallocated to other projects that the city says are urgently needed, such as a tornado shelter at a community center and a new roof for Bartle Hall. But $3.5 million of that $10 million would be held back in case the city does find a way to expand the streetcar route past downtown in the next few years.

The city borrowed the $10 million in May to finance streetcar planning with the expectation that it would be paid back after voters approved a streetcar expansion. Out of the $10 million, the city spent about $1.2 million on streetcar planning before a public streetcar vote in August. But that vote failed, and the streetcar is not currently slated for expansion.

City Treasurer Tammy Queen told the council’s finance committee Wednesday that the money must be paid back by June 2017. But she said the remaining $8.8 million can be spent on other needed infrastructure projects that have their own revenue sources to pay back the debt.

Assistant City Manager Pat Klein said those projects include nearly $2 million for a new roof for Bartle Hall; $2.23 million for a tornado shelter and gym at Garrison Community Center, a project that is also getting federal funds; and about $800,000 for streetscape improvements along 20th Street from Southwest Boulevard to McGee Street. It makes sense, he said, to do that work while 20th Street is already torn up for the downtown streetcar route.

The finance committee endorsed the proposal Wednesday, although committee member Scott Wagner was initially skeptical and wondered whether the city shouldn’t just repay the money now to the bondholder.

Councilman Dick Davis responded that the city has already spent $75,000 in initial borrowing costs and received a very low interest rate of about 1.2 percent. It makes sense, he said, to use the borrowed money for other worthy projects when it can still be paid back inexpensively before the due date.

After Wednesday’s committee meeting, Mayor Sly James also defended the plan to keep $3.5 million on hold for future streetcar planning.

While streetcar skeptics point out that 60 percent of voters rejected expansion in August, James said Wednesday that 55 percent of voters along a Main Street route supported expansion.

“Some of the voters spoke,” James said. “Along Main Street, they approved it.”

James indicated the city might try again along Main Street after the downtown route opens late this year. He said it made sense to have that planning money available if needed.

Others remain unconvinced. Dan Coffey, who campaigned against the streetcar in August, said after Wednesday’s committee meeting that he could support things like a new Bartle Hall roof, but not future streetcar planning. He said the city needs to preserve existing buildings and infrastructure but stop working on new frills.

“Keeping any money for the streetcar, that’s wrong,” he said. “That should be zeroed out.”

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

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