KC streetcar plan suffers huge blow
The Kansas City Star
Kansas City’s failure to win a federal grant to get started on a downtown streetcar line is more than a bad break. It leaves the city stalled — at best — and falling farther behind most major cities on a critical amenity.
While Mayor Sly James and other boosters this week put on sunny “we will go forward” faces, the financial reality is far gloomier: A proposed $100 million endeavor just lost 25 percent of its potential funding.
Kansas City lost out on $25 million it had sought from the federal Department of Transportation. The competition was stiff, so the denial wasn’t too surprising, especially since no matching local funds exist for the initial streetcar project.
Still, the rejection marks yet another disappointing chapter in the city’s inability to get a needed mass transit plan off the ground.
Strong leadership is urgently needed now to overcome the latest setback.
The next steps:
More detailed planning for the two-mile starter line from the River Market to Crown Center must continue and provide more precise information about potential costs.
A mail-in election to establish a special transportation district in downtown will proceed. If the district is approved, the city would have the right to ask residents in the district to endorse sales and property tax increases that would provide much of the revenue for a starter streetcar line.
The city has to aggressively pursue other federal funds. Unfortunately, that still could be an uphill run given the lack of local streetcar money.
Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders should keep working on a regional commuter rail plan to link downtown Kansas City and its Missouri-side suburbs. His proposal, which also does not yet have local funding, would have a better chance at success if this region was embracing mass transit, instead of seeing its future getting cloudier.
Finally, James and others must re-evaluate how funds could be provided not just for the starter line but for a larger system that already envisions an extension from Crown Center to the Country Club Plaza.
We have expressed strong concerns before about the special transportation district now being voted on, and especially how imposing higher property taxes within downtown could damage its ability to attract more jobs and investment. With the loss of federal funds for now, that concern looms even larger.
In addition, city officials have said the special district tax approach would not work in funding a larger system. That increases the need to look at using a broader stream of funds to pay for the entire streetcar project.
Currently, no one has proposed any kind of citywide tax. Voters or elected officials in the past have rejected every other sales tax requested to pay for a different mass transit project — construction of a light-rail system.
Streetcar supporters say downtown businesses and residents would benefit from the starter line and should be expected to bear the burden of paying for it in the special taxing district. The system could encourage new development as well, they say. Boosters also note that no organized opposition from the business community existed to formation of the special district.
However, that could change if a tax election would be held later this year or in early 2013 in the district.
This week’s failure to land the $25 million federal grant gives James and other city officials additional time to put together a more substantial streetcar proposal, one that might make a lot more sense with funding from a broader tax.
While we recognize the urge to get started with something in this transit-deficit community, a plan that might hurt downtown’s economic prospects would not be in Kansas City best long-term interests.