Assessing what exactly a streetcar means for Kansas City.

Is the downtown streetcar a development engine or a luxury vehicle? 

Assessing what exactly a streetcar means for Kansas City.

click to enlarge streetcar.jpg

Keith Negley

Fast-forward 10 years. It's 2022. No one has put on a winter coat in years. A Clinton is back in the White House. And the streets are alive in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

Lured by an abundance of jobs and culture, young people from all over the Midwest are flocking to KC, capital of what the world calls the Silicon Prairie. The four corners of 16th Street and Main — once occupied by grim parking lots — have sprouted a mixed-use development, the headquarters of a soon-to-go-public tech firm, an artisanal pie shop, and a high-end fashion boutique. Zipping up and down the corridor of all this economic development is the tool that started it all: a modern streetcar line connecting a new generation of hip, creative, wired urbanites.

Such is the utopia envisioned by Mayor Sly James and members of the Kansas City, Missouri, City Council, who have spent the past year working to put their streetcar proposal in front of voters. On Tuesday, December 11, the matter will be settled. That's the day mail-in ballots are due back from the 697 downtown residents tapped to decide whether the city builds a $100 million, two-mile streetcar line between Union Station and the River Market.

There is, of course, an alternative scenario to this Shangri-La, and you don't need a time machine to see it. Just go to Tampa, Florida.

In 2002, Tampa opened a streetcar line with similar goals in mind. The 2.7-mile line connects the city's downtown with Channelside (a shopping and entertainment district) and Ybor City, a historic neighborhood. Community leaders said it would attract conventions and new businesses.

Ten years on, the Tampa streetcar is bleeding red ink. Property-tax revenues are falling, ridership is down, and a $5 million endowment it has used to cover shortfalls is nearly dry. It has reduced its hours, operating from noon to 10 p.m. most days, and now arrives at stops only every 20 minutes, making it an unfeasible mode of transportation even for a downtown lunch trip.

"There are areas for improvement, such as extending hours of operation and boosting [rider] frequency, but that would require a greater financial subsidy," says Marcia Mejia, public information officer for HART (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority), which operates Tampa's streetcar.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn voted against the streetcar a decade ago, when he was on the City Council. He didn't want to levy a tax on downtown business owners, and he said there were better uses for the $55 million that the federal government would contribute to the project. Now, in a cruel twist of civic fate, it has fallen to Buckhorn to rescue a project he opposed from the start.

"We're pregnant," Buckhorn told the Tampa Port Authority board in September, after it threatened to yank an annual $100,000 subsidy for the streetcar. "We're stuck with it [the streetcar]. We can't stop it and we need to fix it."

Is KC the next Tampa? Or is it the next Portland, Oregon — the city to which advocates invariably point as proof of streetcars' potential? Nobody knows — not the cranky libertarians who oppose it, not the public-transportation evangelists who support it, and not the handful of people with ballots in their hands right now. It's a big, fat bet. But for the mayor and the City Council, it's the best kind of bet: the kind made with someone else's money.


Again and again, proposals to build light rail in KC have ended in embarrassing failure — with most of the embarrassing parts, in recent years, coming courtesy of gondola fetishist and transportation activist Clay Chastain. (Search Chastain's name at pitch.com for a stroll down memory lane.) Voters in 2006 approved his $1 billion plan for a 27-mile train line linking midtown and KCI. The City Council, arguing that Chastain's vision was vague and unfeasible, repealed the ballot measure in 2007.

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