My Thoughts on the Downtown Streetcar Proposal

After reading the detailed story in Sunday’s Kansas City Star about building a new streetcar line in the central corridor, I decided to express my thoughts via the blog.  I’ve been following this story for some time, and keep thinking, “$100 MILLION for just the starter line?  Is it worth it?” Many folks don’t think so.

A quick summary of the backstory:  ballots will be mailed to about 700 downtown residents next week, asking for votes  on tax increases to pay for this initial starter line  that will run from the River Market to Union Station.  There are two taxes:  a 1-cent sales tax and a another tax on commercial and residential property taxes (downtown area only).  If approved, the two mile starter route should open in 2015 with four streetcars operating seven days a week, free for all riders.  Ballots are due December 11.

Portland Streetcar

Supporters say that although the area is currently serviced with Metro buses, the streetcars will attract a young, hip and creative crowd to downtown; increase property values; spur new business and residential development; and promote Kansas City as a more progressive city (similar to other downtowns with rapid transit:  Portland, Seattle, etc.).

Those opposed feel the tax is too much of a financial  burden for current downtown residents and businesses; the route will not be self-supportive; additional funding will be hard to secure and there are other more pressing needs in the city right now than a new transportation system.

Here are my thoughts:
*There is a growing demand for housing within walking distance of amenities, entertainment and work location.  I hear this all the time as a real estate agent. It’s not just the 20-30 year old  crowd either; retiring baby-boomers want the same walkable, urban areas. Free streetcars  would reinforce the desirability of living along the Main St corridor and make leaving the car in the garage much easier.
*The initial cost of $100 million will balloon to a much higher final price tag. These sort of projects always go over budget.
*The streetcars  would be a big asset for tourists and convention business. Those visitors spend freely when attending meetings and special events downtown.  This type of no-cost  transportation could translate into thousands of more visitors annually, paying the sales tax that keeps the project going.
*Who foots the bill  if the system isn’t self-sustaining? The  KCMO taxpayers are already on the hook for the Power and Light District, which isn’t meeting projected numbers.
*Are there only 700 registered voters in downtown KC?  That sounds like an awfully small number, considering all the lofts, condos and apartments with residents.   Where did this number come from?
*Is there that  much demand for frequent trips between downtown and Crown Center/Union Station?  Extending the first phase to the Westport/Plaza area would be better, but cost-prohibitive.
*The one way trip is projected to take 13 minutes, including stops.  I’ll bet that’s how long it takes via the Metro bus.  What are the bus rider numbers along these areas?
If I lived downtown and had a vote in the matter…how would I vote?  I like the idea of the streetcar and understand its appeal.  When I’m on vacation, I prefer to visit places where I don’t have to rent a car.  One reason I live in Brookside is because it’s so walkable.  I think the streetcar line would be successful if we have the critical mass of riders needed.,.and that would take years.  Is this ultimately a ‘build it and they will come’ scenario?

Let me know what you think about the streetcar proposal.  Please leave your comments!

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