KC needs streetcars, but not this plan
The Kansas City Star
Kansas City has struggled for years with fixed-guideway transit, whether it goes by the name of light rail or streetcar. Almost every time, the offered plan failed with voters.
One exception was an unworkable proposal, initiated by petition, that would have piggy-backed onto an existing tax rather than impose a new one.
The Star has long supported rail transit, so it is with regret that we urge a “no” vote on the two-mile system proposed between the River Market and Crown Center.
The funding would come from a taxing base that’s far too small. And the approval process for the supporting taxes is unusual in the extreme.
Supporters rightly argue that rail transit spurs development because it is fixed in place, unlike a bus route. Investors and entrepreneurs know the rails won’t vanish overnight and undermine the economic value of a particular location.
Rail, they say, expands the reach of people on foot. Lunch in the River Market becomes more practical for a worker in the Crossroads or Crown Center, especially given the earlier decision that streetcar rides will be free. One result is more foot traffic — more people circulating over a wider area — and a broader market for restaurants and other businesses.
These are valid points and we look forward to a day when our area, too, can offer an amenity that’s much-appreciated in other major metro areas.
But the pluses are outweighed by the risks that would come with the new taxes imposed only in the special transportation district created to support the streetcar system. The district encompasses the core of downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods, such as the Crossroads. That area includes The Kansas City Star, which is willing to pay more for a streetcar system that offers a better financed plan.
Within the relatively narrow area, sales taxes would rise by a full percentage point. Property taxes would go up as well — residential by nearly 9 percent and commercial by 5 percent.
Supporters are gambling that the higher taxes — and higher rents that would follow — won’t unduly retard downtown’s growth. However, the risk is real that the increased taxes could do just that.
Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that in one study Kansas City ranked fourth on a list of metropolitan areas with the highest total taxes on lodging, rental cars and meals — after Chicago, New York and Boston. Ours is still a mid-level market, and room rates are well below those of other cities. And a streetcar line could reduce convention costs, since it would mean fewer sponsors would need to hire shuttles. But the sales tax could move us higher on the list of taxing cities, undermining our ability to compete for conventions with other second-tier markets.
The election process also is troubling and undemocratic.
Officials say that within the special transportation district, there are only about 3,600 active, registered voters. Only about 730 applied for ballots in the streetcar election. Of that, 697 were approved. Ballots were mailed out this week and must be returned by Dec. 11.
But think about that. Even if every approved voter mails back a ballot, this issue will be decided by a minuscule number of people.
The special-district concept has been put to good use in Kansas City, as evidenced by the improvements and regular maintenance downtown and along the Main Street corridor. But this election — 697 people deciding a matter so weighty — takes the idea to a ridiculous extent.
What’s more, the city admits the same approach wouldn’t work for streetcar extensions. Downtown is the only place where development is dense enough — meaning the tax base is deep enough — to produce enough revenue to support a streetcar system.
City Hall should quickly start over. Officials should advance a smart streetcar plan supported by a larger tax base that would be ready to grow beyond a starter line, and seek the approval of a wider swath of the electorate.