Yael T. Abouhalkah

Kansas City’s brand new streetcar line might flop, but a second act is likely

The new downtown streetcar system starts carrying passengers on Friday and could be a huge hit with Kansas Citians. Or not.
The new downtown streetcar system starts carrying passengers on Friday and could be a huge hit with Kansas Citians. Or not. jledford@kcstar.com

These are giddy times for supporters of Kansas City’s new streetcar line.

The 2.2-mile downtown system starts carrying passengers on Friday. Plenty of people can’t wait to see how it will help continue to transform downtown and lead this city into a Marvelous Golden Age That Will Last Forever!

Whew. Calm down.

We’ve been here before.

Kansas Citians have seen other projects that were going to create jobs, spur redevelopment, attract free-spending visitors, boost our civic ego and make the city a better place to live.

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Voters decided to expand Bartle Hall in 1990. Build a larger Kansas City Zoo in 1990. Completely restore Union Station in 1996. Save Liberty Memorial in 1998. Construct Sprint Center downtown in 2004.

All but Sprint Center stumbled in fulfilling their goals of being radical upgrades on the status quo.

Here are a few words of warning, based on 30 years of watching promises get broken and big dreams initially crumble in this area.

The new, $100 million streetcar system might flop. It could be seen as a failure in a year because of concerns over ridership numbers, operating costs or other reasons.

Let me be clear. I’m not hoping the streetcar line will fizzle out. It has the potential to be a wise investment in the urban core’s future, with a possible extension to the Country Club Plaza area.

But even if the streetcar runs into problems, its shortcomings likely will be only temporary. Smart people will fix what ails it.

If all this happens, the streetcar will join a list of high-profile projects that have stumbled at first but are now strong assets of Kansas City.

Highlighting a few:

▪ In August 1990, an ad at the time told voters to “Imagine a great new zoo.” The zoo, thanks to a higher property tax, would become eight times larger. “Kansas City is a great family town and we need a great family zoo,” another ad said.

The new zoo was finished five years later. But it disappointed many people because of long walking distances and a lack of animals near the entrance.

Eventually, though, new zoo director Randy Wisthoff took charge. Voters approved higher taxes that helped build great exhibits. Attendance has swelled for what is now a first-class zoo.

▪ In November 1996, voters on both sides of the state line approved the first and only bistate sales tax that would — according to election material from the time — “Restore the Past, Discover the Future” by rehabbing the dilapidated structure. The station re-opened in 1999 to great excitement.

Yet within four years, Science City was deemed a failure, the endowment fund was drying up and civic leaders were talking about how to “save” the station again.

Over time, though, people figured out how to increase rented space in the building, improve Science City, bring in popular special exhibits and make Union Station a gathering place for community events. Remember the 2015 World Series rally?

▪ In August 1998, voters approved an 18-month sales tax to restore and maintain the crumbling Liberty Memorial.

But some boosters wanted to do more because crowds weren’t showing up for the fixed memorial. Plans to raise private funds for a museum pretty much fizzled, and voters six years later endorsed spending millions more to build it.

Today the National World War I Museum fascinates visitors in many ways.

The streetcar line is different from those other projects. It’s a public transit venture that hopes to move a few people, woo private investment and boost downtown’s quality of life.

I hope it succeeds from the start. But don’t despair if it doesn’t. There’s almost always a Second Act for important ventures in Kansas City.

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