Kansas City streetcar: Main Street corridor route set to open in early 2015

Nathan Zoschke

2-mile starter line could be extended south to UMKC’s Volker campus

A planned $102 million downtown streetcar line is on track to open in early 2015 after a lawsuit challenging the proposal was derailed last Friday by a Jackson County circuit judge.

The suit, filed by two downtown property owners, claimed a special taxing district to fund the streetcar system was unconstitutional.

Last fall, downtown residents overwhelmingly favored a 1-cent sales tax increase in addition to several new property tax assessments to build the streetcar system. Its route will follow the Main Street corridor from 3rd and Grand Avenue in the River Market to Union Station.

Advocates of the downtown streetcar—including Mayor Sly James, the Downtown Council, Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance, Transit Action Network and Streetcar Neighbors—believe it will usher in a new era of construction and development.

Since 2000, downtown Kansas City has experienced an influx of new residents and entertainment venues. Once-vacant buildings in areas like the Crossroads Arts District now boast restaurants, clubs, art galleries and trendy loft-style condominiums.

The new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Power and Light District and Sprint Center have bolstered Kansas City’s civic profile. However, residents and community leaders cite the need for continued investment.

While downtown’s population has nearly doubled since the turn of the millennium, its 20,000 residents are a fraction of the same area’s pre-World War II peak of more than 100,000.

Then, Kansas City had a streetcar system that encompassed most of the urban core, extending to areas such as Waldo, the Historic Northeast, Swope Park and Kansas City, Kan.

That streetcar system was decommissioned in 1957, when the nascent interstate highway system heralded a new era of suburban development.

Historic buildings were demolished and replaced with parking. Restaurants, department stores and residents left the city for the suburbs. Office jobs were soon to follow.

After years of decline, downtown has seen a turnaround over the past decade with more than $6 billion in new investment, according to the Downtown Council.

Mass transit has been an ongoing discussion since the late ’90s. Various proposals have proven to be unworkable or lost at the polls.

Five of the six Kansas City light rail proposals to fail at the polls were spearheaded by Clay Chastain, a former Kansas City resident who lives in Virginia.

A 2006 Chastain proposal to build a 22-mile light rail line passed with 53 percent of the vote. The $2.5 billion plan was rejected by the city council because its only funding mechanism—a ¼-cent sales tax—would only generate $1 billion.

The current streetcar plan is modest by comparison.

“I don’t think [the Chastain proposal] would have worked,” said Dr. Peter Eaton, director of the UMKC Center for Economic Information. “It was put forth without a lot of research.”

The streetcar proposal, Eaton said, is a low-risk investment.

David Johnson, co-founder of Streetcar Neighbors, said a light rail makes infrequent stops and is geared towards commuters. A streetcar, he said, functions as a neighborhood circulator that makes more frequent stops.

Streetcars also share the road with automobile traffic, and thus, move slower. With light rail, the right of way is restricted.

“There’s a much greater impact [with a streetcar], even though it carries fewer people,” Johnson said. “It would have taken a long time to see a significant impact [with light rail].”

Debate persists about the economic impact of a streetcar. Return on investment can be difficult to measure.

Statistics cited by streetcar advocates show a 7,500 percent return on investment in Portland and 2,000 percent in Tampa.

“I don’t think those are realistic,” Eaton said. “They’re taking all of the development that has occurred and attributing it to the streetcar.”

“In other cities, there have been changes, but the question is whether you can directly attribute these changes to the streetcar,” Eaton said. “There has been a buildup recently in condo-type housing downtown. There is no question that [the streetcar] will contribute to the value of that property.”

A $300,000 condo would pay about $400 in new taxes.

However, many downtown properties are covered by tax abatements that cover 50-to-100 percent of the property’s true value.

Eaton said many downtown residents will still pay lower taxes than other parts of the city. A streetcar could help boost demand for multi-unit housing and entertainment venues.

“There’s no question that it connects things and spurs commercial development,” he said. “The people who live there [downtown] see this as a boon.”

“The way to look at this is as an amenity for people who are interested in walking,” said Dr. Jared Carr, director of the Bloch School’s L. P. Cookingham Institute of Urban Affairs. “I live downtown, and I don’t think about taking the bus to go four-to-six blocks, but I would take the streetcar.”

Carr agreed the primary objective is to bolster entertainment districts and housing development.

This could have a spillover effect for other businesses.

“It creates a buzz,” he said. “On some level, what benefits downtown is also a benefit for large downtown employers.”

Johnson stressed the potential to expand the streetcar line to other areas. The city has already issued a request to study extensions.

“The biggest bang for the buck is connecting a business district with a university campus,” he said.

The streetcar line is included on site analysis maps for the proposed UMKC Downtown Arts Campus.

“There is an air of inevitability of expanding the streetcar south to the main campus,” Johnson said. “I have talked to people from the Northeast and West Bottoms, and they all say, ‘That would be great, but why don’t you go to UMKC first?’”

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