Kansas Citians typically drive whenever they travel. The city has a public transit system, but in many areas, service is spotty at best. The city’s freeways and boulevards flow smoothly at almost any hour of the day; in 2013, the annual Tom Tom Traffic Index ranked Kansas City, Missouri, as the least congested large city in the Americas — and its overall congestion delays at peak hour were the lowest in the developed world.
There are some walkable neighborhoods in the city, most notably Old Westport and the Country Club Plaza area, but the downtown tops the list, according to Walk Score figures. And the people behind the city’s downtown resurgence have an ambitious goal: to make K.C.’s urban core a neighborhood where residents can fulfill all their basic needs without a car (an attribute the city hasn’t had in decades).
The problem is, downtown K.C. stretches nearly three miles south from the Missouri River. It would be difficult at best to locate, say, a large supermarket in this territory so that any resident could walk to it.
And that’s where the KC Downtown Streetcar comes in.
Running for two miles from River Market (near the Missouri River) to Union Station and Crown Center, the streetcar line on Main Street is intended to be a pedestrian accelerator, a utility residents and visitors alike can use to get around downtown without getting behind the wheel. The vision is that locals would use it to get to places like Cosentino’s supermarket or the Crown Center Shops, and everyone would use it to get from a dinner in the Crossroads Arts District to a performance at the Kauffman Center, then back where they came from.
It’s also designed to be a development accelerator, a task it’s performing even before it goes into service, says Downtown Council CEO Bill Dietrich.
“Since we began construction on the line, $900 million of new investment is coming into town,” he says. “We’ve been surveying the people creating these new developments and asking them how much the streetcar was a factor in their thinking. We found that about $250 million of that figure represents developers who said that either they would not be here without the streetcar or that the streetcar was important in influencing their decision to invest.” (According to the city, the latest numbers now total $1 billion in new investment, with $381 million owed to the streetcar.)
When it begins service, it will carry not only passengers but also something more ambitious: the nervous system of a “smart city.” In mid-April, the City Council approved a $15 million deal with Cisco Systems to make the streetcar line a digital backbone for the “Internet of Everything” (IoE), with a little something for everyone thrown in: Interactive kiosks will provide information about local events and city services. Real-time data on traffic and infrastructure conditions will get sent to City Hall. Free public WiFi will be available to residents and visitors. And this “living lab” will allow tech entrepreneurs to test their innovations.
Ashley Hand, the city’s chief innovation officer, told KCUR radio that the network would make the city “not just a national, but a global leader in cultivating this ecosystem around IoE technology.”
Mayor Sly James told KCUR that the project would catapult the city into the forefront of technological innovation: “When people come into this city they will see something they will see no place else. It won’t be in New York, it won’t be in L.A., it won’t be in Silicon Valley. It won’t be in any of those places that people think are cool.” And perhaps best of all, the city will only have to chip in $3.7 million toward the cost, a little less than one-fourth of the total.
The line is set to go into service this fall — at no cost to riders, as a means of getting Kansas Citians reacquainted with a mode of mass transit that last ran through the city in 1957.
The Downtown Streetcar represents the first successful attempt to bring rail transit back since then. From the 1970s on, city officials, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority and transit advocate and activist Clay Chastain have at various times put forth proposals to build new light-rail lines. City voters have repeatedly voted down proposals for new taxes to pay for those lines, with one exception: In 2006, they narrowly approved a Chastain-sponsored light-rail transit plan, to be paid for by extending a three-eighths-cent transportation sales tax. At the time, incoming Mayor Mark Funkhouser tried to work with Chastain to implement the plan, but soon enough, the partnership soured, and the city government’s longstanding hostility to Chastain resurfaced when City Council voted to cancel the light-rail transit plan. The combative Chastain sued the city, and the result of that suit was last fall’s curiously worded ballot question authorizing two sales taxes, one for “capital improvements” and the other for “transportation.” The vagueness of the wording led Chastain to recommend voters reject it, which they did in the November general election.
They also rejected an expansion of the taxing district for the streetcar line that is actually getting built. While their response to Chastain’s repeated ballot initiatives may indicate otherwise, K.C. officials are interested in building a comprehensive light-rail network, and the Downtown Streetcar is the proof of concept. That plan suffered a setback this past August when nearly 60 percent of voters in the proposed taxing district rejected its expanded boundaries.
The vote brought the divide between the city’s east and west sides into stark relief. Voters who lived west of Troost Avenue in the proposed expanded district supported the expansion by a 55-45 percent margin, while the bigger electorate east of Troost rejected it by a 70-30 percent margin.
One big reason for the East Side rejection, says Gayle Holliday, of the city’s leading black political organization, Freedom Inc., was that the proposal delivered too little benefit to the East Side for the taxes involved.
“The Linwood and Independence Boulevard corridors did not offer any transit advantages for those who live there and work downtown,” she says. “And it was not only a sales tax increase, it was a property tax increase” — one that residents who lived as far as three miles away from the proposed extensions would have to pay.
East Siders, she suggests, would prefer to see an extension of KCATA’s MAX bus rapid transit down Prospect Avenue, an extension that was also included in the August proposal.
While both the city government and the Downtown Council back the streetcar as an economic development tool — “Transit-oriented development is a reality,” Dietrich says — not every downtown booster shares the vision. R. Crosby Kemper III, executive director of the Kansas City Public Library and a Downtown Council member, threw cold water on the notion that streetcars drove development: “The city makes an economic development argument for the streetcar, and the research doesn’t exist to support it,” he says. “That … economic development tool exists only in Richard Florida’s imagination.”
But the streetcar’s advocates press on, predicting that once people actually ride it, their attitudes will change. The locals who live near Main Street are already there, perhaps because some of them may even remember when the city’s last streetcar line ran nearby. Whether their fellow Kansas Citians east of Troost will eventually join them is far from assured.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Next City contributor Sandy Smith is an associate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.