Kansas City streetcar success story spreads, but big challenges remain

Crowds began lining up to ride Kansas City’s new downtown streetcar line in May — and they haven’t stopped coming since then.
Crowds began lining up to ride Kansas City’s new downtown streetcar line in May — and they haven’t stopped coming since then. jledford@kcstar.com

Excitement over Kansas City’s new downtown streetcar line hasn’t abated since it opened almost five months ago. The system has picked up plenty of passengers — and newly devoted supporters — since then.

Crowds have flocked aboard at a pace far beyond expectations, reaching 6,600 passengers a day vs. the once-expected 2,700 a day. Making the rides free has certainly helped boost that number.

This week, backers discussed an extension north to near the Missouri River and buying two more vehicles to serve the constant crowds.

And yet ... let’s keep an eye on having realistic expectations about the streetcar system and how it’s affecting Kansas City’s future.

▪ The talk about adding vehicles makes sense.

The Streetcar Authority should have the funds required to buy the vehicles, given the strong sales and property tax receipts in the transportation district formed to help finance the line.

Putting more than the currently available four streetcars on the track could provide faster, smoother service while reducing crowded conditions. If purchased, the vehicles should get here by 2019.

▪ As for the short extension from the streetcar’s current north ending point in the River Market, that also could be an excellent idea — if it would help spur some economic development along the Missouri River.

Simply trying to help enliven Richard L. Berkley Riverfront Park by bringing more people there isn’t a good enough reason, by itself.

▪ The biggest issue regarding the streetcar system’s future remains an expansion from the current ending point at Union Station south along Main Street through the Country Club Plaza area, winding up near the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus.

In another positive development this week, a judge found that the attempt to keep that extension plan rolling is indeed legal.

That means the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance as well as others who want a longer system can now plan on asking voters along and near the proposed new line to form a special taxing district for the $227 million project.

That election would be held sometime in 2017.

However, the most important election among voters in that district — if formed — would be held by mail-in ballot in late 2017 and early 2018, meaning that Kansas Citians won’t know whether expansion will be approved for an additional 15 months or so.

Here’s the kicker: Even if all goes as planned, a gleaming new, 3.75-mile extension would not open until 2023.

Plus, all of this potential progress depends on something outside the control of Kansas City officials and voters, which will be to qualify for and receive around $100 million from the federal government to help make the project possible.

The streetcar’s success story includes some of the economic development it has helped spur downtown, in the Crossroads Arts District and even in midtown. In turn, as more people live in housing units in those areas, that brings in more people who are potential passengers for the transit system.

The Streetcar Authority is making the proper move to study the short expansion toward Berkley Park and to add vehicles. And the pursuit of the longer extension toward UMKC should proceed, with voters making the ultimate decision on the fate of that project.

Sometime in early October, the one millionth passenger will hop aboard a Kansas City streetcar. It will be a moment to celebrate, and one that will happen far ahead of schedule.

While that’s certainly good news, it appears that even better times are ahead for the city’s fledgling streetcar line.