Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Streetcar Named Despair

Shh. If you listen closely, you can hear St. Louis and Omaha laughing.

In the what-were-they-thinking category the city council of Kansas City, MO on Friday approved a contract in anticipation of building a streetcar line a whopping two miles in length through downtown. Steve Vockrodt of the Kansas City Business Journal reports that HDR, Inc. will be paid approximately $700,000 to design the line

Nothing, and I mean nothing, screams urban modernity and progress like ... a trolley.

Fox4 News reported last week that the council planned to bring streetcars to downtown KC. Including federal funding, a local tax increase, and property tax assessment, the council estimates the cost to reach $100 million. Voters will need to approve the 1% sales tax increase and property tax assessment to foot the local portion of the bill.

Knowledge is power
Meanwhile, Kansas City just last year closed almost half its public schools and released 700 teachers and other personnel resulting from a $50 million deficit. I don't know whether this was because voters wouldn't approve a tax increase favoring the schools or administrative mismanagement. Do city council members really place more value on a useless trolley than on the future of their taxpayers’ school-age children?

Beef jerky
I would be interested to know the logic behind the council's decision to put streetcars to a vote. Similarly, I am hopeful the affected residents tell the council where they can put their proposal. A 2011 study commissioned by the Federal Transit Administration and termed an “alternatives analysis” introduced the streetcar idea alongside express buses and commuter rail as a candidate for possible federal funding. Why?
At best, streetcars are quaint. Used in other cities, they interest me only in passing. "Oh look, a streetcar." Unless it is bearing down on me at an inescapable -- if I'm sleepwalking -- 20 mph, I am over it by the time I speak the noun. And by the way, KC, MO, you already have buses!

Technically speaking, streetcar systems are light rail. As you might know I am a huge proponent for (real) light rail throughout the Kansas City metro. High-speed rail would put the "City" in Kansas City. But a trolley is to light rail what beef jerky is to Kansas City Strip.

Meanwhile, several plans put forth for a four-county light-rail system hover around the $1 billion mark. In a September, 2010 article, Jeff Fox wrote:

Commuter rail also promises cost advantages. Another lane of I-70 from Blue Springs to downtown Kansas City – the state is looking at those plans already – would cost $4.5 billion, compared with slightly more than $1 billion to build the entire four-county commuter rail system.

Please, sir, may I have another?
Significant as that analogy is, what’s more alarming to me is the psychological impact of the 2-mile trolley proposal. Not many people enjoy a tax increase however much it is needed. Yet I fear this proposal – for a quaint, 2-mile trolley system – will pass. Fear? Why?

  • Because what Kansas City really needs is a true, light-rail system within this decade to remain competitive. A multi-county commuter rail system would go a long way toward unifying the metro and dissolving the state-line divide. And it would take lots of cars off the roads.

  • Because psychologically and from a tax perspective, people buying into streetcars augmenting an existing bus system, will cut off at the knees any serious momentum to develop a true, functioning, multi-county transit system prior to 2030. KC metro residents and businesses on either side of the state line will balk at a referendum for a possible 3% tax increase to fund any of the four-county plans if a trolley is held up as the symbol of progress.

A trolley for your thoughts
With federal belt tightening looming, the odds of securing Washington’s assistance for any of the proposed light rail projects seem unlikely in the near term. Still, 10 times the cost of the streetcar proposal would yield commuter service lines 67 times the distance –in one of the more heavily promoted light rail proposals – and would serve large swaths of the metro area. 

The proposed streetcar system would service an area that can easily be covered by any reasonably healthy pedestrian.

I would urge my friends who will be allowed to participate in the referendum to give the streetcar a pass, saving the tax increase for a plan that makes sense for the whole metro.

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