Reviving Kansas City’s streetcar system

Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:00 am

 By LESLIE COLLINS
Northeast News
December 12, 2012 


Remnants of Kansas City’s first streetcar system can still be found throughout the city and in Historic Northeast. Although the rails have long since been buried in pavement, streetcar poles still dot the urban landscape.

Fifty-five years ago, a streetcar line hummed through the heart of Historic Northeast along Independence Avenue, spurring economic development and offering convenient transportation.

“The decline of Northeast essentially started when the streetcar system was ripped out in 1957,” said Russ Johnson, chair of the city’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It was a thriving community, very affluent at the time. Lots of families and none of the concerns it has today. When you took the streetcar line out, you basically forced people to use cars.”

As a result, a number of people moved to the suburbs to build larger homes with ample garages, he said.

Streetcars were first introduced in Kansas City during the 1870s, and now Kansas City is hoping to resurrect the once popular system. Phase I of the plan includes creating a $100 million, 2-mile streetcar line in downtown to connect the River Market area to Crown Center. Phase II proposes adding seven more lines, including a 4.4 mile stretch along Independence Avenue which would run from Grand Avenue to Topping Avenue.

“I think it’s a fabulous idea,” said Indian Mound Neighborhood Association President Katie Greer, who stressed she was speaking as a Northeast resident. “It would change the visual aesthetic of the Avenue. People would see the area in a more positive light.”

Earlier this summer, downtown residents voted to approve the formation of a Transportation Development District and now must decide whether or not to create a funding source for the streetcar system. Deadline for the mail-in ballots was Dec. 11 and results are expected to be announced later today (Dec. 12).

Johnson said based on conversations with area residents, the city is “optimistic” both sources of funding will be approved by voters.

“We wouldn’t be going through this process if we didn’t think we’d have a positive outcome,” he said.

Two separate questions are on the ballot and both must be passed for the streetcar to become a reality. The questions include whether or not to approve a one-cent sales tax and a special assessment on real property located within the boundaries of the downtown streetcar district. The assessment is 48 cents per $100 of assessed value on commercial property and 70 cents per $100 of assessed value on residential property.

To further fund the streetcar system, the city of Kansas City will budget $2 million per year for the life of the Transportation Development District. In addition, the city secured approximately $18 million in federal funds to establish the downtown streetcar.

If voters approve both questions, Kansas City will have a fully functioning downtown streetcar by 2015.

Johnson called the demise of Kansas City’s streetcar system a historical debate and said he links it to what’s been dubbed as the General Motors streetcar conspiracy. Beginning in the 1930s, GM created a program with other companies, like Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, among others, to purchase streetcar systems, dismantle them and convert them into buses.

“They viewed them (streetcars) as competition,” Johnson said.

In 1949, GM and several other companies were convicted of conspiring to create a monopoly on interstate commerce.

Furthering the demise of streetcars in Kansas City was the lack of sustainable funding. Kansas City’s streetcar lines were used as a development tool and all of the streetcar lines were owned by private entities, Johnson said. When an individual wanted to buy land to build a home, the cost of developing a streetcar line was built into the lot price. However, once the land was developed, the funding source ended.

“They couldn’t figure out how to pay for the ongoing operations,” he said.

The city of Kansas City acquired a number of streetcar lines as a result and eventually sold them off to GM.

Asked why Kansas City needs a streetcar, Johnson said, “It’s literally looking forward to the future demographic. Research shows that younger people in America are driving a lot less. They’re a segment of population that is looking for urban environments where they don’t necessarily have to have a car to do what they do every day. What has been shown is that these streetcars are an amenity those individuals desire.”

“A streetcar is definitely attractive,” said David Johnson who serves on the board of the Crossroads District neighborhood association and frequents downtown. “It’s almost like an anchor tenant in your neighborhood.”

Although Johnson doesn’t live in Historic Northeast, he’s already talking to Northeast neighborhoods about the impact a streetcar could have on the community.

“I’ve been told by quite a few people that it’s (Northeast) become a place where people have moved when they leave downtown,” David Johnson said. “So, the demographics are changing. I think it’s more receptive (to the idea) than it would have been 10 years ago. All of the infrastructure in the streetcar’s path has the potential to be replaced or improved. It’s exactly what Independence Avenue needs.”

Russ Johnson said streetcars spur economic development, unlike bus routes.

“People don’t necessarily invest in the property and build buildings and housing along a bus line,” he said. “You don’t get that activity. There’s no evidence of it. On a streetcar line, that’s not the case. People gravitate toward the rail because it is permanent. The bus line can move around.”

In addition, he said, there’s a stigma attached to riding the bus. It’s a stigma that says only poor people ride the bus. Russ Johnson cited the example of Tacoma, Wash., which had a well-established, free express bus service that traveled from the convention area to downtown. When Tacoma replaced the bus service with a streetcar line, which followed the exact same route and was also free of charge, the ridership increased by 500 percent, he said.

Another aspect that sets streetcars apart from busses is the ride quality, David Johnson said.

“A bus going down a paved street is subject to every bump and whatever that’s in its path,” David Johnson said. “With a streetcar, it’s steel wheels on steel rails. There won’t be potholes, there won’t be sewer grades that cave in and cause huge bumps. It’s a premium product, so because of that it attracts more riders.”

Although construction costs are high for streetcar lines, they’re less expensive than busses in operating costs, Russ Johnson said. The bus system is twice as expensive to operate due to maintenance costs and the dependency on fuel, he said. In addition, while busses can hold approximately 40 to 45 people, streetcars can fit up to 120 people, he said.

To launch any additional streetcar lines besides downtown would require a feasibility study, which could begin as early as 2013. Feasibility studies would most likely be funded by in-district Public Improvements Advisory Committee (PIAC) funds, Russ Johnson said. In addition, communities of proposed streetcar lines would need to be willing to fund the streetcar.

“It looks like there’s a really good opportunity along Independence Avenue,” Russ Johnson said. “One of the reasons is when Historic Northeast was built out, it was basically built out as a transit friendly area. You don’t see a lot of garages for example because most of the neighborhoods didn’t have cars to get around.”

“It certainly has piqued everyone’s interest,” said Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce President Bobbi Baker-Hughes.

If Northeast secured a streetcar line, it could slow down traffic along the Avenue and result in fewer traffic accidents, Baker-Hughes said.

“I think it would also enhance the walkability of the shopping areas on Independence Avenue…” Baker-Hughes said. “If traffic were a little slower, you could actually see what was on the Avenue and be able to stop in and enjoy the many flavors of the world in the many restaurants the Avenue has to offer.”

Greer agreed and said the streetcar line could influence area residents to view Northeast as a destination stop.

“I see the investment of more than just building a streetcar line,” Greer said. “You’re also investing in rebuilding all the infrastructure around it as well. The Northeast was built on a streetcar line and I think it would be great for the historic character of the neighborhood.”