Expanding the streetcar: the opportunities and challenges


Councilman Russ Johnson explained some of the complexities of urban rail in light of the passage of funding for a downtown streetcar. Johnson was honored yesterday by the Regional Transit Alliance for his work on transit issues.

Mass transit supporters on Tuesday celebrated the vote approving streetcars and heard about challenges in quickly expanding the two-mile starter line.

The city – as many others had to do with rail transit – finally made it over ‘the transit funding avoidance hump,” said Kite Singleton, chairman of the Regional Transit Alliance.

Doing that, he said, creates an attitude that “we can do it now.”

Councilman Russ Johnson, a leader in the streetcar effort, accepted an award at the alliance lunch gathering and spoke of the advantages and challenges in further expanding urban rail.

Among his points:

More urban rail would increase Downtown population and development at a time when Kansas City is gaining a national reputation as a “creative crossroads.”

The problem is its high cost, he said, and Missouri is of little help because it is 45th nationally in transit funding.

It is one of eight states with constitutions stating that state road funds can only be used for highways. The state has more than 33,600 miles of highways to maintain and it has among the lowest fuel taxes to use for that.

Almost three fourths of people in Missouri live in dense urban areas but state transportation policy is geared toward the one fourth who do not.

“We need to change the conversation,” he said.

It costs $25 million a mile for urban rail track, $50 million if it is on both sides of the street.

The $100 million system approved by voters is scheduled to be running from the river market to union station before June 2015. But to extend it 3.5 miles from Crown Center to the University of Missouri at Kansas City would be another $175 million.

To extend it on a bridge to north of the river would be $70 million and then up to $50 million a mile.

“The airport has got to come off the table,” he said. It is 20 miles from the market area and ridership would not begin to pay for the vast cost.

But any citywide vote to fund mass transit could be difficult to pass unless part of it runs into the northland, Johnson said.

The city should move toward extension lines funded by voters in transportation districts like the one that passed the starter line last week, he said.

The districts could be many times larger, he said, giving them a larger tax base and lowering the property tax increases if the measures pass. Combine that with any federal money available and keep lobbying for changes in state funding policies, he advised.

All of that is separate from a Jackson County effort toward a countywide sales tax to fund up to three commuter rail lines, along with bus and trail expansions. Those lines would run from suburbs to the river market area.

County Executive Mike Sanders says he is negotiating with railroads that own the existing track for a possible sales tax transit vote next summer or fall.

After two decades of Kansas City going nowhere on rail proposals, Singleton said, the city is in “a new era.”