Streetcar project approval process in KC strains credulity
The Kansas City Star
Tuesday was the cutoff for those applying to vote in the upcoming streetcar election, and just after the 5 p.m. deadline the number was around 730. It may take a few days for officials to validate applications and eliminate any duplicates to arrive at a final tally for those eligible to vote.
Still, it looks as if several hundred people will decide whether to approve a $93 million streetcar project, running from the River Market to Crown Center. Think about that. A fraction of the city’s voters will decide whether businesses, residents, shoppers and diners within the freeway loop and adjoining neighborhoods will pay millions of dollars in higher taxes.
This newspaper has long supported fixed-guideway transit as a way to focus development and foster the kind of healthy density associated with thriving cities.
But the streetcar plan has been worrisome from the beginning. It’s grossly undemocratic — few voters deciding whether the central business district will pay millions of dollars in higher taxes.
The risk is that downtown, a sector whose development is still far from achieving critical mass, will be hobbled in its ability to draw in fresh investment capital.
If so, what the city will miss will be invisible — the small enterprises that fly under the radar of City Hall and the development lawyers, who are always keen for the humongous project and blind to the need to draw the smaller firms that make up much of the economic ecosystem of healthy cities. For many, the higher tax bill could be an important consideration in weighing whether to invest in our city center.
The process for approving this project is suspect. Only a narrow sliver of the city’s voters — people living within the boundaries of the new transportation district — are eligible. And of that group only those who mailed in written applications will be allowed to vote. What’s more, ballots have to be returned in notarized envelopes.
It may be legal, but it’s well beyond any reasonable person’s intuitive notion of legitimate.
Up to now, Kansas City has made good use of the concept of special districts.
The district created for downtown, where yellow-jacketed workers help with security and litter, as well as the special district for Main Street, have brought real improvements in the city’s character and image.
But any concept can be taken too far. The process for financing the streetcar project is a perfect example.
It’s time for city leaders to rethink the fairness of this election and return to voters with a more democratic, far-reaching, and long-lasting plan that will not only fund the starter line, but will be established to facilitate hoped-for expansions as well.
A starter line is a start. It should not be created with the knowledge that funding expansions will take an entirely different route.
Voting is a privilege, but this kind of voting is a far cry from what most people would consider open, fair and representative.