Kansas City Pins Hopes For Downtown On New Streetcar

May 3, 2016

After $102 million and more than five years of design, construction and testing, Kansas City is about to get a taste of streetcars again.

The 2.2 mile starter line marks the first time the city has brought back public rail transit since 1957, when the historic line was shuttered. For KC Streetcar Authority Executive Director Tom Gerend, the process has already been worth the effort.

"Residents around the city are going to be asking, 'How fast can we expand it, when can it come to my neighborhood,'" Gerend says, standing next to one of the streetcar vehicles outside Union Station. "It is driving transformation downtown at a rate that is really unprecedented. I think that's pretty undeniable if you drive the route and see the cranes."

Looking at other streetcar projects around the country, Kansas City is a bit of an outlier. Not only is the downtown starter line set to hit within two months of its original desired "March Madness" goal, but the Streetcar Authority ended up saving about $1 million on its operations budget this year.

Cincinnati's elected officials have fought over their streetcar's budget and Fort Lauderdale has upped their budget estimate by $53 million. The latter project got federal funding in 2012, but hasn't even begun construction yet. 

But it's been a long road to get to this point. 

Kansas City once had hundreds of miles of streetcar lines threading throughout the metro. This is the Country Club Plaza line near 75th and Wornall in 1955.
Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections / Kansas City Public Library

Kansas City's historic streetcars

From the late 1800s all the way through to World War II, Kansas City's historic streetcar lines were the main way that residents moved around the city. At their peak in 1923, the streetcars stretched across the metro on more than 300 miles of rail. And ridership reached more than 135 million rides.

For comparison, last year's bus ridership was just over 15 million rides.

Local historian Monroe Dodd wrote a book about the historic lines called "A Splendid Ride." He says most people in the metro didn't have any transportation options other than streetcars.

"Precious few people, especially compared to today, were riding around in an automobile," Dodd says. "There was a lot of reason to ride the streetcar if you could afford the fare, which was about six or seven cents."

This map of Kansas City shows the streetcar routes that ran throughout the city in 1912. The old system hit its peak in the early 1920s.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

But while most people in the metro used streetcars in the early 20th century, the system had a few critical flaws. It was run by a variety of private companies, and they built tracks with the agreement that they had to maintain the streets around them. 

And once cars became commonplace, there was no stopping the downward spiral. Even though streetcar ridership surged during World War II because of gas rationing, Dodd says most Kansas Citians were tired of the system by 1957.

"When the last streetcar ran on Troost in the 1950s, Mayor H. Roe Bartle celebrated saying, 'We can now have cleaner moving of traffic and we won't have these bloody islands in the middle of Troost to block cars,'" Dodd says. "So it had gone from a public convenience to something of a driver's nuisance."

Get on the bus

In the decades after the city tore the streetcar lines out, public transit had a singular focus: the bus. And ridership slowly declined throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. Dick Jarrold with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority says it took a while for the line to mature.

"It was a very traditional diesel bus transit system," Jarrold says. "Coverage was not nearly as extensive as it is throughout the region today. It was really focused on Kansas City, Missouri and focused on downtown."

But when Jarrold was hired on 1998, rail transit had made its way back into conversations among public transit advocates, and the ATA even attempted to design a plan. 

"I came to the ATA when they were starting preliminary engineering on a light rail project," Jarrold says. "This was an ATA and city project running from River Market through downtown, Crown Center and onto the Country Club Plaza."

And while that plan failed due to funding issues, there was still a prominent force for rail transit in Kansas City. And that force was Clay Chastain.

The longtime light rail advocate fought repeatedly for massive commuter rail projects stretching upwards of two dozen miles from Kansas City International Airport to the Kansas City Zoo. But all of Chastain's efforts ended in defeat.

Even when he managed to get voters on board to send a $1 billion light rail plan to the Kansas City Council, it was dismantled when funding looked unlikely. 

Donna Mandelbaum and Tom Gerend with the KC Streetcar Authority ride the streetcar with members of the media.
Credit Cody Newill / KCUR 89.3

A modern streetcar

And funding was still an issue when the city started entertaining the idea of a downtown streetcar in 2011. To get the line rolling, it took a combination of a Transportation Development District (TDD) that raised property and sales taxes within a district around the line and a $20 million federal transit grant.

But the TDD drew criticism because it only took about 400 voters to approve the plan. Dan Coffey with the PAC Citizens for Responsible Government says that was an underhanded move. 

"We felt like that was kind of a backroom, clandestine type of deal and not open and fair to the public," Coffey says. "If we had all the money in the world and there were no other needs in the city, maybe it'd be a great tourist attraction, but I doubt seriously if it's even that."

A streetcar operator drives the vehicle north along the 2.2 mile line to River Market.
Credit Cody Newill / KCUR 89.3

Coffey also doubts the project remained within its $102 million budget because of utility relocation that had to happen during the streetcar's construction. 

"It's just an archaic mode of transportation," Coffey says. "I mean, we've got so many other things we need to do: curbs, sewer, water, streets, schools."

Former city councilman Russ Johnson says the utility relocation would've happened regardless of the streetcar. He also says the TDD was a smart choice to fund the streetcar without raising taxes for the entire city.

"We've [voted for rail transit] nine times, and it failed every time," Johnson says. "I'm not so convinced that someone who lives in northern Clay County should have veto power over what happens downtown. I think we need to think about these things in a localized way."

Looking ahead

Despite the opposition, the city is moving ahead with its vision for a modern streetcar. Kansas City recently hosted more than 100 members of the Community Streetcar Coalition, a group made up of streetcar operators from around the country.

David Johnson with the Streetcar Authority board says other cities' representatives were impressed with Kansas City's line — a hard task in the world of transit.

"They were very impressed with the project, and it's a pretty high bar to impress this crowd," Johnson says. "They were jealous of our vehicles, the way we designed the platforms and shelters and the linear layout of the route."

He also says that the experience of riding a streetcar in 2016 is a far cry from 19th and 20th century cars. 

"There will be free WiFi on board and off, and there will be interactive kiosks with local neighborhood information," Johnson says. "All that stuff, the Smart Cities stuff, is a first for the United States."

And while the city was foiled in its plan to expand the streetcar in 2014, it's likely they'll try again.

"In the last proposal there was clear support, and the strongest corridor continued south along Main to UMKC and the Plaza," Gerend says. "But they would require votes, ultimately, of the people. So time will tell if the public demands expansion. I suspect they will."

The streetcar will open to the public May 6. The city has planned numerous events and activities through May 7, and bus service will be free to the public to connect downtown. 

This story is part of KCUR's series called 30/30 Vision, in which we examine Kansas City's past to reimagine its future. 

Cody Newill is the digital editor for KCUR 89.3. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill