Lots of people are plenty excited that Kansas City’s downtown streetcar line finally will start carrying passengers next Friday.
Many city, civic and business leaders are hailing the project as a huge game changer for the city. And the festivities surrounding the opening weekend sound great.
The system has the potential to be yet another big victory in downtown’s lumbering comeback. The core has gained thousands of new residents over the past decade, though it’s lagged badly in adding a larger workforce.
And yet …
Some pretty high expectations — even unrealistic ones — are being placed on what is, after all, only a $100 million, 2.2-mile starter system.
That investment pales, by comparison, with the funds shoveled into building the Sprint Center, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and the Power & Light District.
All of those projects have had a hand in reinvigorating downtown, of course. Yet it seems the streetcar line has attracted more attention — and created more controversy — than other upgrades in recent years.
Part of that has to do with how the streetcar was financed through a controversial taxing district in a small part of downtown.
The project also created critics when streets were ripped up and merchants along the line complained. And when cars were towed for not parking “inside the white line,” as everyone by now should know to do.
Finally, the streetcar also has drawn scorn for not being a huge improvement in public transit in Kansas City. Bus routes already rolled down Main Street, after all.
In the last few months, Mayor Sly James and other supporters have contended that the streetcar system has helped boost interest in downtown’s redevelopment. They point to dozens of projects in the core that have been completed or are underway or planned — some even without taxpayer assistance. Imagine that.
The reality is that people were moving downtown years before the streetcar got here, and some of the added or expected housing units would have been undertaken without the streetcar. Hundreds have been built many blocks away, for instance.
The general concerns right now are basic ones: Who’s going to actually get on the streetcar, how often and why will they ride it?
Sure, surveys have shown that downtown residents and workers are excited about using the streetcar and have even promised to do so.
But will they, even though all the rides are free? Will they walk the few blocks to catch the streetcar? Will bus routes that connect to the streetcar bring any extra traffic into downtown?
Or will the streetcars be empty too often, yet another lukewarm way to boost transit in Kansas City?
As late-to-the-party supporters of the downtown line, The Star has been rooting for its success in recent months. That’s partly because we wanted public funds spent efficiently on what could be a new amenity for downtown. And it’s because proponents have put forward legitimate reasons to be excited about its opening.
In the coming days, weeks and months, the future of the streetcar will be decided by riders and developers. People will — or won’t — hop on the vehicles.
A surge of more development will — or won’t — occur.
The values of property near the streetcar will — or won’t — rise.
Kansas City’s streetcar line could be a huge triumph, and we could be talking about a massive expansion toward the Country Club Plaza by this time next year.
Or the system could turn out to be an embarrassing failure.
Perhaps caught up in the excitement of the moment, we’ll fervently hope for the former. The project was well worth pursuing and could be a catalyst for a brighter future for the crucial heart of this metropolitan area.