Is the downtown streetcar a development engine or a luxury vehicle?


Fast-forward 10 years. It’s 2022. No one has put on a winter coat in years. A Clinton is back in the White House. And the streets are alive in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

Lured by an abundance of jobs and culture, young people from all over the Midwest are flocking to KC, capital of what the world calls the Silicon Prairie. The four corners of 16th Street and Main — once occupied by grim parking lots — have sprouted a mixed-use development, the headquarters of a soon-to-go-public tech firm, an artisanal pie shop, and a high-end fashion boutique. Zipping up and down the corridor of all this economic development is the tool that started it all: a modern streetcar line connecting a new generation of hip, creative, wired urbanites.

Such is the utopia envisioned by Mayor Sly James and members of the Kansas City, Missouri, City Council, who have spent the past year working to put their streetcar proposal in front of voters. On Tuesday, December 11, the matter will be settled. That’s the day mail-in ballots are due back from the 697 downtown residents tapped to decide whether the city builds a $100 million, two-mile streetcar line between Union Station and the River Market.

There is, of course, an alternative scenario to this Shangri-La, and you don’t need a time machine to see it. Just go to Tampa, Florida.

In 2002, Tampa opened a streetcar line with similar goals in mind. The 2.7-mile line connects the city’s downtown with Channelside (a shopping and entertainment district) and Ybor City, a historic neighborhood. Community leaders said it would attract conventions and new businesses.

Ten years on, the Tampa streetcar is bleeding red ink. Property-tax revenues are falling, ridership is down, and a $5 million endowment it has used to cover shortfalls is nearly dry. It has reduced its hours, operating from noon to 10 p.m. most days, and now arrives at stops only every 20 minutes, making it an unfeasible mode of transportation even for a downtown lunch trip.

“There are areas for improvement, such as extending hours of operation and boosting [rider] frequency, but that would require a greater financial subsidy,” says Marcia Mejia, public information officer for HART (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority), which operates Tampa’s streetcar.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn voted against the streetcar a decade ago, when he was on the City Council. He didn’t want to levy a tax on downtown business owners, and he said there were better uses for the $55 million that the federal government would contribute to the project. Now, in a cruel twist of civic fate, it has fallen to Buckhorn to rescue a project he opposed from the start.

“We’re pregnant,” Buckhorn told the Tampa Port Authority board in September, after it threatened to yank an annual $100,000 subsidy for the streetcar. “We’re stuck with it [the streetcar]. We can’t stop it and we need to fix it.”

Is KC the next Tampa? Or is it the next Portland, Oregon — the city to which advocates invariably point as proof of streetcars’ potential? Nobody knows — not the cranky libertarians who oppose it, not the public-transportation evangelists who support it, and not the handful of people with ballots in their hands right now. It’s a big, fat bet. But for the mayor and the City Council, it’s the best kind of bet: the kind made with someone else’s money.

Again and again, proposals to build light rail in KC have ended in embarrassing failure — with most of the embarrassing parts, in recent years, coming courtesy of gondola fetishist and transportation activist Clay Chastain. (Search Chastain’s name at for a stroll down memory lane.) Voters in 2006 approved his $1 billion plan for a 27-mile train line linking midtown and KCI. The City Council, arguing that Chastain’s vision was vague and unfeasible, repealed the ballot measure in 2007.

“Chastain hadn’t done any real homework,” Councilman Russ Johnson tells The Pitch. “It took a lot of money away from the city’s bus system, and it was just way too expensive. It put the city in a difficult place because a project like that just couldn’t be done.”

The repeal sparked an exhausting run of litigation from Chastain, who continues to argue that the repeal was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, another light-rail ballot measure was defeated in 2008.

“I became convinced after 2008 that light rail would never pass in Kansas City,” says Johnson, chairman of the city’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and, for all intents and purposes, the streetcar point man. “We’re a big city, 320 square miles. You just can’t build enough light rail at a low enough cost that voters will approve paying for it. The more light rail you build, the more people like it. But the more it costs, the less people like it. Somewhere in there is an equilibrium point, and if that equilibrium point is less than 50 percent, you lose. And that was the deal in Kansas City.”

In reviewing the 2008 ballot results, Johnson and the council stumbled upon something curious: There was no real correlation between the proximity of voters to a proposed rail line and their votes. Light rail was unpopular in both the Northland and in southern parts of the city, near where it extended to Bannister Road. Basically, people residing more than five miles from City Hall tend to oppose light rail. But people who live within that radius consistently vote in favor of light rail.

“Not everybody wants to live downtown in a high-rise condo, and not everybody wants to live in the suburbs,” Johnson says. “So the question became, ‘How do you build something that will appeal to that particular downtown demographic?’ We started looking for a plan that would fit the needs of an urban area, but not necessarily the transportation solution you’d use at Barry Road and I-29.”

As Johnson and the council considered that question, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was starting to distribute $1.5 billion in TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants as part of the Obama administration’s effort to stimulate the economy and reduce U.S. energy dependence.

“Around that time [Kansas City Area Transit Authority General Manager] Mark Huffer approached me and said, ‘Russ, I think we should take a hard look at a streetcar.’ ”

Kansas City is hardly alone in the push for streetcars. Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Tucson and dozens of other U.S. cities have new projects before voters, under construction or already up and running. But KC has a chronically high per-capita murder rate, along with an unaccredited public-school system and sewer lines downtown that date back to the 1800s. It’s not the first place you’d think to put a $100 million streetcar line.

And a streetcar isn’t the first mode of transportation that leaps to mind when you think of ways to ease a spread-out metro’s commuter crunch. Light rail moves fast, around 55 mph. Streetcars, even modern machines such as the one proposed for KC, are slow. They travel on tracks and remain at the mercy of traffic lights, congestion and speed limits.

“My opinion of streetcars has declined to some extent,” says Yonah Freemark, an urbanist who studies architecture, planning and transportation and writes for The Atlantic‘s Cities blog. “They’re chosen by city leaders because they’re relatively cheap to build, but they often don’t provide the transit improvements that cities need — for the pure and simple reason that they operate in the same lane as cars.”

Freemark continues: “The city with the most acclaim for its streetcar system is Portland. And it is a well-used system. But the trains operate at very slow speeds, often less than 10 miles per hour. When they’re that slow, yes, you can attract some riders — people who are already downtown and want to hop on a train. But if you need to actually get somewhere, you want something that moves closer to 20 miles per hour. Since streetcars travel such short distances, at such slow speeds, it’s often faster to simply walk to your destination.”

But streetcar advocates aren’t selling speed. For them, it’s about growing business. In theory, a streetcar’s fixed route provides businesses and property owners along its path with financial security.

“It is an economic-development tool. That’s a fact,” Johnson says. “All infrastructure is an economic tool. We put in sewer lines because we want people to build houses along them and create a tax base. It’s the same with roads, police stations, fire stations, electricity. That’s what infrastructure is. It’s a foundation upon which you build economic activity and positive community impact.”

Streetcars also look a lot like what urban theorist Richard Florida has written about over the past decade. In his best-selling books The Rise of the Creative Class, Cities and the Creative Class and The Flight of the Creative Class, Florida argues that in order to compete in a postindustrial economy, cities must attract a “creative class” — essentially tech entrepreneurs and bohemians. Lure those people, he says, and economic development will follow.

It’s a sexy theory, and it has done plenty for Florida’s personal economy, but there isn’t a tremendous amount of empirical evidence to support it. This hasn’t stopped cities across the country from trumpeting their arts scenes and building cool-looking things like streetcars in order to court these phantom creatives.

Sungyop Kim, an assistant professor of architecture, urban planning and design at the University of Missouri–Kansas City who is in favor of the KC proposal, backs the streetcar-as-stimulus argument. “We’re talking about a changing culture,” he says. “My research suggests that urban areas will continue to be viewed in a more favorable manner by new generations. There will be a higher concentration in urban areas and a significant increase in single-family households moving forward. Young working professionals tend to favor urban amenities like streetcars, and you’re at an advantage as a city if you can offer them. You can’t look at a streetcar as simply an economic decision. It’s more of a political decision, based on the way culture in America is changing.”

Of course, a streetcar line built with federal dollars is both an economic decision and a political one. The initial $1.5 billion TIGER investments were followed by rounds of grants: $600 million to transportation projects in 2010, $526 million in 2011 and $500 million in 2012. (Only some of this money was allocated to streetcar projects.) Given that stimulus flow, why not submit a streetcar proposal?

One reason: KC discovered earlier this year that the feds aren’t as loose with big grants as those numbers suggest.

In 2009, the KCATA proposed a streetcar project that would cost $150 million and applied for a starter grant from TIGER to help pay for it. The answer was no.

In 2010, the city partnered with Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders on an application for a federal Alternatives Analysis grant — about $540,000 to study KC’s public-transportation needs. (Sanders wanted to study underutilized rail corridors for commuter-rail use in eastern Jackson County.) This one was awarded; the county got two-thirds of the grant, and the city took a third.

“That was a watershed moment for the streetcar,” Johnson says. “It’s one thing to go to the council and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a great idea.’ They say, ‘Great.’ Then you say, ‘Can I have some money for it?’ And they say, ‘Well, that’s not such a great idea.’ So getting federal backing was important. All of a sudden, I could say, ‘We’re going to study this and educate people on it, and the federal government is paying for it, so there’s obviously some merit to it. It’s not some Clay Chastain back-of-the-napkin plan.’ ”

Johnson continues: “We went into that study with a very determined mind-set. It was not a study where we were going to say, ‘OK, streetcar sounds good, could be good, but let’s move on.’ We knew that if the streetcar came out as the best alternative for our needs, we would move immediately into implementation.”

Emboldened by the study, City Hall drew up a new streetcar plan, which is the proposal now before voters. It also filed a petition, this past February, to create a Transportation Development District.

Nobody would be talking about streetcars right now had the city not established this special district, a bong-shaped area that encompasses roughly everything south of the Missouri River, east of Broadway, west of Locust, and north of Union Station. Basically, it allows the city to circumvent a proven-loser citywide vote by confining the streetcar ballot to residents within the TDD.

That’s about 3,600 registered voters, only 460 of whom returned ballots in the election about whether to create the TDD. That measure passed in August, 319-141, setting up the December 11 election on whether to build that $100 million streetcar. Of the TDD’s registered voters, only 697 applied to receive the mail-in ballots for the streetcar measure.

Johnson points out that 697 of 3,600 is an 18-percent turnout — about average for a nonpresidential election. He also notes that TDDs are designed to do exactly what the streetcar TDD is doing. “The point of TDDs is to create a transportation project that would normally not occur through other means,” he says. “Otherwise, why have the Transportation Development District statute at all?”

But so few people voting on a project this big doesn’t sound average to some people. In fact, it sounds a little undemocratic.

Keith Novorr, owner of Michael’s Fine Clothing, at 1830 Main, says, “When you’ve got a situation where there’s a couple hundred people voting on a project of this magnitude, it’s legal, I guess. But is it ethical? I don’t think so.”

Rocky Horowitz, owner of Bob Jones Shoes, at 1914 Grand, adds: “This is an issue that will impact the entire downtown for years to come, and it’s going to be decided by a lot of people who happen to be renting apartments downtown right now and might just as well be gone in six months.”

Downtown property owners, though, object to the plan’s financial architecture more than the balloting process. That’s because if it passes, they’ll largely be the ones paying for it.

In June, when a fourth round of TIGER grants was awarded, KC’s bid for $25 million (to cover a quarter of the streetcar project) was denied. “It is increasingly clear in today’s political and economic climate in Washington that if we want something done, we will need to do it ourselves,” Mayor James said at the time. “We can and will make this happen.”

James and the city were able to locate about $17 million in other grants, but the city plans to issue and to back about $80 million in bonds to pay for the construction of the streetcar line. Most of that repayment would come from a 1-percent sales-tax increase for businesses in the TDD, such as Novorr’s and Horowitz’s, with other funding derived from a variety of assessments (read: taxes) on property in the TDD (see sidebar). The streetcar proposal on the ballot calls for the city to contribute a dinky $2.3 million to the line’s construction and $2 million a year toward a projected annual operating cost of $2.8 million.

That puts the heaviest tax burden on commercial-property owners, many of whom don’t live within the TDD and are therefore unable to vote on the streetcar. This idea — that, say, a 23-year-old barista renting a loft in the Crossroads has more say in this election than a longtime downtown business owner who lives in Brookside — has sparked more than a few cries of “taxation without representation.”

“This is a strange, regressive tax that we didn’t even have an opportunity to vote on,” says Dick Snow, owner of Bazooka’s, the strip club at 1717 Main. “The people voting on it aren’t going to be the ones paying the taxes on it. It’s just not a fair tax.”

“They [property owners] don’t have a say on the school district’s levy, either, and it’s 10 times the size of the streetcar’s assessment,” Johnson counters. “And, by the way, they only had 3-percent turnout in their last school-district election — 3 percent voting on a much bigger budget than the streetcar. So this whole idea that businesses don’t get to vote — I’m sorry, but businesses are not people. They don’t get to vote.”

Crosby Kemper III, the director of the Kansas City Public Library and a downtown resident, objects to the proposal’s tax increases and the city’s rising debt load. He considers a streetcar in KC a pointless luxury item.

“This is a cultural amenity that has an appeal to upscale 20-somethings and 30-somethings, and it will only marginally increase the likelihood that people will move downtown,” he says. “On top of that, the city has picked a low-density area without any real commuter usage. Bus routes actually serve the working poor. They help them get to work. This streetcar will be used by tourists, shoppers and lawyers who can afford to bill a two-hour lunch. I call it the take-a-lawyer-to-lunch trolley.”

He continues: “You can justify projects like this in New York, Washington, San Francisco — cities with huge traffic problems. We don’t have a traffic problem here. We don’t have a dense population. It’s just such bad public policy.”

Ryan Maybee, of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, at 1924 Main, is both a downtown business owner and a Crossroads resident. He’s voting for the streetcar.

“I will say that, from a business owner’s perspective, I’m concerned about the continuing increase in the sales tax down here,” he says. “That’s a bigger issue to me than the property-tax increase. Our property taxes will go up, but it’s really such a small amount that it’s completely irrelevant. The owner of our building and I have worked out a deal where we’re going to split the increase in taxes. But it’s virtually nothing. It’s definitely not enough of a reason to slow the clear renaissance we’ve been seeing downtown over the last five years.”

If this streetcar proposal is defeated — which seems unlikely, given the results of the TDD formation election — don’t expect it to go away.

“The TDD could call for another election on the exact same questions,” Johnson says, noting that Parkville voted on riverboat gambling four times before passing it. “If it doesn’t pass, we’ll look at the reasons it didn’t, make corrective measures and move forward with it.”

If it passes, you’ll see streetcars in three years. And to its advocates, the Union Station–River Market connector is just a starter line, the beginning of a larger plan that would spread throughout the city. Initial meetings with other neighborhoods and community groups vying for expansion have already been held. Service connecting the Union Station stop with UMKC is the most popular proposal so far, though expansions to 18th Street and Vine, Southwest Boulevard and Independence Avenue have also been floated.

“I’m a big advocate of moving forward immediately and doing the homework necessary to figure out where to go next, and to make the business case to do it,” Johnson says.

But how useful would a citywide streetcar system really be? Why take a streetcar from UMKC to the Crossroads when you can drive there in half the time, and when parking outside downtown isn’t much of an issue? Douglas Stone, a lawyer at Polsinelli Shughart who has worked closely with Johnson on the budget and finances of the streetcar, says it’s all part of changing Kansas Citians’ perceptions about transportation.

“I’ve got a 16-year-old son,” Stone says. “He would take a car from the bathroom to the bedroom if he could. That’s how we’ve raised his generation. I grew up in New York, in the Bronx. I was taking a bus and train to school every day when I was 14 years old. That’s how I was raised. And that’s how this next generation is going to be raised. Once people touch, feel, see this streetcar, the desire for it — and the desire to expand it — is going to grow. It just is.

“If we had done this 15 years ago, KC would be a very different place right now,” he continues. “There are always going to be people who are comfortable with the status quo. That’s how you get left behind. People say, ‘We’re not Portland.’ Well, that’s not the way to think about it. Portland became Portland. Seattle became Seattle. Kansas City needs to become Kansas City.”

On Twitter: @davidhudnall.

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