Mayor Applauds Streetcar Extension Plan, ‘Prays’ Washington Favors Funding Request

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The historic Netherlands Hotel building is the centerpiece of a $30 million redevelopment plan linked to the proposed Main Street streetcar extension. (Image courtesy Exact Partners)

By Kevin Collison

The proposed streetcar extension from downtown to UMKC got strong backing from Mayor Sly James Wednesday, but he’s skeptical about its short-term prospects for obtaining full federal funding.

“I’m very bullish on the streetcar and its expansion, and what it can do,” the mayor told an audience attending a panel discussion hosted by the Urban Land Institute.

“The extension we’re talking about already has had ripple effects on Main Street, people are buying property,” he said.

“This streetcar is a tremendous asset to build businesses and aid entrepreneurs as it moves south.”

Still, James said a major reason the city pushed for what proved to be an unsuccessful streetcar expansion election in 2014 was to take advantage of the Obama Administration’s support for rail transit projects.

“It was a gamble we thought was worth taking,” James said.

Now, he said supporters should “pray” the Trump Administration will invest in important transportation and infrastructure projects including the Kansas City streetcar extension.

“We’ll have to pray we get down to doing things that make sense with transportation and infrastructure,” he said.

James has a reason to be cautious. Just last week, Washington rejected a city application for $60 million to help replace the Buck O’Neil Bridge.

The Kansas City Streetcar Authority plans to apply for more than $100 million in federal funding this fall if a measure authorizing the transportation development district (TDD) to levy local funding is approved.

The deadline to mail in ballots for people living within the TDD boundaries was Tuesday and the results are expected June 20.

If the local vote is successful, James intends to lobby for the federal funding.

“I’ll be as active as I can be in the last 14 months (of my term), but we don’t know who’ll be charge of the DOT (U.S. Department of Transportation) tomorrow.

“The prospects for some funding are probably good, I don’t know how good it will be for the entire amount.”

Tom Gerend, executive director of the Streetcar Authority, was more optimistic about obtaining full federal funding.

“The project is supported by Congress,” he said. “We’re not feeling 100 percent confident, but we feel good.”

The Streetcar Authority held a public meeting June 5 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to solicit ideas on the proposed Main Street extension.

The ULI panel discussion included Gerend; Diane Burnette, executive director of MainCor, which manages the community improvement district along the proposed streetcar route, and Jason Waldron, the city engineer who helped build the current downtown streetcar line.

Other highlights from the ULI event:

James said the streetcar eventually will have to build an east-west extension as a matter of “economic equity.” Gerend said the most likely east-west line to be built first someday would be on Independence Avenue.

The mayor also estimated Kansas City was 25 years behind other cities when it comes to public transportation.

Burnette believes extending the streetcar will help redevelop the midtown “void” between downtown and the Country Club Plaza. She pointed to the recent decision to redevelop the long-vacant Hawthorn Plaza building into apartments as an example of activity being spurred by the potential streetcar line.

She also predicted that Westport Road between the  historic entertainment district east of Broadway and the proposed 39th and Main streetcar station should experience substantial redevelopment, referring to the area as “East Port.”

Westport merchants have objected to the TDD plan, saying they won’t benefit from the additional taxes they and their patrons will pay. Gerend said the experience downtown indicates people would be willing to walk the 4 1/2 blocks from the 39th Street stop to Westport.

Gerend said the streetcar authority is still gathering input on whether the line should run in the middle or outside lanes of Main Street, and people can still post their opinions on the streetcar website until Friday. The earliest the extension could be operational is 2023.

The estimated run time from the south terminus at 51st and Main near UMKC to the City Market would be just under 30 minutes. The authority would like to add eight more cars to its four-car fleet to serve the expanded Main Street route. All the “Smart City” services of the downtown line, including free wi-fi, would accompany the extension.

Gerend said the prospect for the streetcar to continue being free to riders was “pretty good,” but depends on how much federal funding the project receives. He said the authority prefers to fund the streetcar by collecting revenues on the “back end” from increased property values and increased sales tax receipts.

Waldron estimated it would take about three years to build the streetcar extension. He said if the rails ran the center of Main it would be ‘marginally’ less expensive. The project, for the most part, would be easier to build than the downtown starter line because of the wider street.

Waldron said the section that would divert from Main Street and follow the Trolley Trail to UMKC where it intersects Volker and Cleaver streets would be the most difficult to build. Burnette said MainCor would work with the city to minimize the disruptions to businesses along Main.

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