Government & Politics

KC Council skeptics question urgency of streetcar expansion

Kansas City Streetcar proposed expansion plan

Representatives of the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance discuss a proposal to extend the existing downtown streetcar route from Union Station south to 51st and Brookside Boulevard and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. They are submittin
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Representatives of the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance discuss a proposal to extend the existing downtown streetcar route from Union Station south to 51st and Brookside Boulevard and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. They are submittin

Kansas City transit supporters are eager to build on the downtown streetcar’s success and get going with the special elections required to expand south to the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

But they ran into a buzz saw of resistance Thursday from some City Council members who worry that a streetcar campaign could compete and clash with next year’s citywide bond election for infrastructure.

“I think this is not the right time for expansion,” said Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, who emphasized that she supports eventual streetcar expansion along Main Street in the 4th Council District where she lives. But she believes the city now has more pressing priorities that require voter approval.

Thursday’s City Council discussion revealed the dilemma confronting city leaders. They are trying to balance citizen demands for massive infrastructure improvements with transit advocates’ sense of urgency to capitalize on the downtown streetcar’s popularity.

The City Council wants to ask voters citywide next spring to approve a modest property tax increase for major street, sidewalk, bridge and other basic infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, a grass-roots group wants to hold a series of special elections from late this year through next summer, asking a small part of the city along the Main Street corridor for a modest property tax increase and sales tax increase to help pay for streetcar expansion.

The City Council can’t stop the streetcar elections, which would be paid for by the private sector, but they fret that the competing priorities could hurt both agendas.

Even Mayor Sly James, who supports streetcar expansion, said he needs to have an in-depth conversation with streetcar advocates about how to balance these needs.

“I think there should be some discussion about priorities and how we sequence things for maximum impact,” James said.

Attorney Doug Stone, representing streetcar supporters, argued to the council that “Kansas City can walk and chew gum at the same time.” He said voters can reasonably weigh both the streetcar and basic infrastructure issues in the coming months. He said even if this streetcar initiative gets the ball rolling, the earliest that any expanded line could open to the public would be 2021.

Council members Dan Fowler, Teresa Loar and several others agreed with Shields that streetcar expansion should take a back seat to basic infrastructure. However, several other council members were fine with moving forward with the streetcar elections.

Although members of the Regional Transit Alliance, who are pushing streetcar expansion, presented their funding proposal Thursday to the City Council, they really don’t need council buy-in at this time.

Unlike past city-sponsored rail plans, this effort is strictly a grass-roots, private-sector initiative. The private sector would in fact pay for any campaigns and special elections to get the local funding for streetcar expansion. After that, however, the city would apply for the federal matching funds to make the project a reality and would build the expanded streetcar line.

Stone emphasized streetcar supporters want a good partnership with the city on election timing and other issues.

“There should be a candid, cordial conversation about that,” he said.

Stone is working with a group of Kansas City residents organized by the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance who filed a court petition June 9. It seeks permission to extend the existing 2.2-mile, $100 million streetcar line that opened May 6 and runs from the River Market to Union Station.

Supporters want to build on the momentum from that starter line and go south about 3.75 miles along Main Street to 51st Street and Brookside Boulevard, near the University of Missouri-Kansas City main campus. More information about that petition is at kcrta.org/streetcar.

The court petition sets out proposed boundaries for an expanded streetcar district, and proposed property and sales tax increases within that district to help pay the projected $227 million cost. This project would require expanding the existing transportation development district that funds the downtown streetcar line.

The proposed boundaries are drawn in the one part of Kansas City, on and near the Main Street corridor, where voters have traditionally supported higher taxes for rail transit.

Circuit Judge J. Dale Youngs has scheduled hearings for Sept. 15 and 16 to consider the legality of the proposed streetcar taxing district. The Sept. 15 hearing is for public testimony, pro and con. The Sept. 16 hearing is a judicial proceeding for parties to the case who have filed written pleadings.

If the court approves the district’s creation, the project still faces many hurdles. Three different special elections (two of them mail-in) would be required. That process could extend into August 2017. If voters within the taxing district approve the new boundaries and the taxes, and the necessary federal funds also materialize, there’s still a long planning and construction period that could take six years. The expanded streetcar system possibly could open in 2021 or 2022.

The streetcar in downtown Kansas City had its grand opening a month ago, and now supporters are hoping to extend the streetcar four miles south on Main Street to the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Students around the campus currently resort t

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

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