Other cities capitalize on streetcar investment

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“Everything’s up to date in Kansas City/They’ve gone about as fer as they can go.”

That Richard Rodgers melody from the 1943 musical Oklahoma! was about that bustling Midwestern city as seen by a naïve cowboy in 1906. Not surprisingly, Kansas City residents quickly adopted it, and Oscar Hammerstein’s gently mocking lyrics became the city’s prideful anthem.

But by the mid-1980s, K.C. had fallen on hard times. The magnificent 1914 Union Station was closed, downtown was run-down and deserted at night and local boosters had little to sing about.

But just as Colorado Springs’ once nondescript and struggling downtown has revived since the turn of the century, so has Kansas City’s storied core.

“In 2002, when Sylvester ‘Sly’ James moved his law office to downtown Kansas City, Mo., he made a wager with a colleague,” The New York Times reported on July 8. “I bet him I could walk across Main Street naked at 6 p.m. and nobody would see it,” he recalled. “And the proof that I was right is that no video of that has ever shown up on YouTube.”

Downtown, he said, “was freakin’ desolate.”

James is now in his second term as Kansas City’s mayor. He’s presided over a transformation that has brought thousands of new residents to downtown, gleaming new apartment buildings (sound familiar?) and a lively arts and culture scene.

But that wasn’t the focus of the Times story. Travel writer Richard Rubin was more interested in K.C.’s absurdly popular 2.2-mile out-and-back downtown streetcar line.

It’s not a heritage line, one that uses refurbished vintage cars to recreate the fabled trolleys that had vanished from most American cities by the mid-1950s. The cars are new, swift and air-conditioned. The schedule: every 10 minutes at rush hour, 12 to 18 minutes off-peak. The cars run from 6 a.m.-midnight on weekdays, and until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. And the fare is free!

The line opened in May 2016 at a total cost of $102 million, $37 million via grants. With typical Midwestern optimism, streetcar backers projected a million riders in the first year. They were wrong — 2 million riders jumped aboard in the first 12 months, and the pace has not abated since.

Businesses in the Transportation Development District saw sales rise by 54 percent, as opposed to 16 percent in the rest of the city. Not content to sit on their laurels, on June 22 residents of the TDD voted 75-25 to authorize a 3.5-mile out-and-back extension from the once-again resplendent Union Station to the University of Missouri – Kansas City campus.

The approved funding structure includes:

• A sales tax not to exceed 1 percent on retail sales within the TDD boundary;

• A special assessment on real estate within the TDD boundary, with maximum annual rates as follows:

– 48 cents for each $100 of assessed value for commercial property;

– 70 cents for each $100 of assessed value for residential property;

– $1.04 for each $100 of assessed value for property owned by the city; and

– 40 cents for each $100 of assessed value for real property exempt from property tax, such as religious, educational and charitable property, but only on market value more than $300,000 and less than $50 million; and

• A supplemental special assessment on surface pay parking lots within the TDD boundary (not garages or free parking lots). The maximum rate for the supplemental special assessment on surface pay parking lots will be $54.75 per space per year.

“This is,” according to the TDD, “the first step in a longer-range plan to create a regional, integrated transit system. Progressive regions with streetcar systems have seen significant economic growth. … Streetcar systems attract new residents, businesses and workforce and provide an improved and more efficient travel option.”

For decades, local streetcar aficionados like John Haney and Dave Lippincott have made the case for reviving our region’s once-vibrant street rail network. The idea has always been popular, but the money has never been there.

Yet do we really think that the Colorado Springs of 2048 can get by with bikes, electric scooters, buses, Uber and autonomous vehicles? Can we join K.C., Salt Lake City, Tucson, Dallas, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City in building street rail? Or, sadly, have we already gone as fer as we can go?

Disclosure: John Hazlehurst is a former board member of the Pikes Peak Historical Street Railway Foundation.

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