Streetcar expansion hits City Hall hurdle

Under political pressure, Kansas City’s streetcar supporters have delayed the elections needed to expand the system.
Under political pressure, Kansas City’s streetcar supporters have delayed the elections needed to expand the system. abouhalkah@kcstar.com

Pressure from City Hall has prompted supporters of Kansas City’s successful downtown streetcar system to delay the elections required to expand the line down Main Street.

Politics played a big role in the sudden pivot.

The upshot: Even if the extension were ultimately approved, the new 3.75-mile line from Union Station to near the University of Missouri-Kansas City would not be finished until 2023 at the earliest.

The Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance last week quietly posted a “delayed schedule for streetcar extension” on its website. The nonprofit organization is leading the expansion efforts but will need the city to apply for tens of millions of dollars in federal assistance for the $227 million project.

Here’s what prompted the changed time-line.

A month ago, Mayor Sly James and several City Council members gave a less-than-enthusiastic reception to the alliance’s original plan to hold elections in 2017 to push expansion along.

The elected officials have their sights set on wooing Kansas Citians in April 2017 to endorse an $800 million bond plan of basic improvements such as better roads and sidewalks. City Hall wants voters focused on approving the bonds, not on streetcar-related issues.

Council member Katheryn Shields, while saying she backs the streetcar, said, “I think this is not the right time for expansion.” James, perhaps the biggest political cheerleader for the system, also expressed his concerns.

But as Kansas City voters have shown in the past, they can evaluate different strategies at the same ballot box for improving the city. And while voters across the city will decide the bond issue, only voters in a narrow band of midtown neighborhoods where public transit is popular will make a decision on streetcar issues.

Over the last few weeks, however, Regional Transit Alliance leaders decided to blink. They were fearful of angering James, Shields and other politicians who have ultimate authority over whether city officials will apply for the federal money that’s absolutely necessary to finance the longer line.

The alliance’s revised streetcar schedule postpones by roughly a half year each of the two crucial elections required to make the extension happen. The final and most important election — whether to impose higher sales and property taxes along and near the Main Street route — now would not be completed until late January 2018 instead of August 2017.

Last Thursday, a Jackson County judge held a public hearing on the legality of the proposed taxing district. Proponents urged him to approve it, which is what is likely to happen based on the legality of the existing downtown streetcar taxing area.

The initial streetcar line has been a positive factor in the recent resurgence of the heart of Kansas City. A longer transit line might bring more housing and economic development throughout midtown. But voters won’t get a chance to make a decision on that issue until later than once expected.