Streetcars, commuter rail are in KC's future. Or not
The Kansas City Star
This could be a great year for transit in the Kansas City area. Unless, of course, it turns out not to be.
Failure wouldn’t be a big surprise for this region, still one of the most backward and underserved in the nation when it comes to alternative forms of transportation.
But it sure isn’t for lack of trying. Here’s one way of summing up the subject:
“Plans for a short line from the Missouri River to Crown Center appeal to a lot of people who think the area needs this shot in the arm. Transportation might be more fun, convenient and necessary, especially if tourists flock to Bartle, Crown Center continues to expand, the downtown business market stabilizes, nearby residential units rent and sell well, and the River Market-City Market area succeeds. Those are a lot of ifs, however, and light rail is bound to cost more money than promoters think.”
Wait a minute. No one’s planning for “light rail” between the river and Crown Center.
Oh, I see the problem. That quotation is from a column in August of 1991, a mere 21 years ago, when I was writing about fledgling efforts to build a light rail line in Kansas City.
That was before former mayor Emanuel Cleaver essentially killed a 1997 light rail plan by calling it “touristy frou-frou.”
It was before activist Clay Chastain mounted petition drives asking for elections on light rail projects. All but one failed at the polls, and the City Council repealed the only successful one because it was deemed unfeasible.
And it was before voters defeated large, costly light rail plans promoted by former mayors Kay Barnes in 2001 and Mark Funkhouser in 2008.
Now it’s 2012, and at least two efforts are under way to bring more mass transit to this area.
In downtown Kansas City a proposed $100 million, two-mile streetcar line has powerful boosters, including Mayor Sly James.
Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders is busy setting the stage to use existing lines for a commuter rail system connecting the county’s suburbs to downtown Kansas City.
No surprise: Neither project is a slam-dunk to get done.
The streetcar idea is further along. Supporters hope this summer to hold an election that would establish a transportation district covering much of downtown. Then, in another election later this year, people who live in that district would decide whether to raise property and sales taxes to help pay for the streetcar system.
Also, the federal government is considering whether to award $25 million to help build the line.
Some downtown residents are pretty enthusiastic about streetcars. They contend — with good reasoning — that this form of mass transit would help attract younger people downtown, while also providing better transit for people of all ages who work and live there.
Long term, the streetcar with its fixed tracks and stops could encourage hundreds of millions of dollars of investment by businesses in the transportation district. Indeed, future economic development is the best reason of all to think a streetcar system might be a deal-changer for downtown’s future.
What could go wrong? Lots.
The feds could reject the city’s $25 million request, blowing a big hold in funding. Voters could decide not to approve the transportation district or the taxes to get the system rolling.
Meanwhile, the commuter rail plan pumped up by Sanders will get positive publicity this summer thanks to an education campaign financed by taxpayers in the county. It’s a novel and acceptable way to tell people about transit’s benefits.
But the proposal won’t move forward until analyses are completed to evaluate ridership and costs. Eventually taxpayers will have to decide whether they are willing to invest tens of millions of dollars to get commuter rail up and running.
Backers of streetcars and commuter rail deserve credit for trying to give thoughtful and not outrageously expensive plans to the public.
Positively, both have at least a fighting chance at success.
Given this region’s sad history regarding mass transit, however, more realistically it will be a major surprise if either or both become reality.
Reach Yael T. Abouhalkah at 816-234-4887 or email him at email@example.com. He blogs at voices.kansascity.com.