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"Chastain hadn't done any real homework," Councilman Russ Johnson tells The Pitch. "It took a lot of money away from the city's bus system, and it was just way too expensive. It put the city in a difficult place because a project like that just couldn't be done."
The repeal sparked an exhausting run of litigation from Chastain, who continues to argue that the repeal was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, another light-rail ballot measure was defeated in 2008.
"I became convinced after 2008 that light rail would never pass in Kansas City," says Johnson, chairman of the city's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and, for all intents and purposes, the streetcar point man. "We're a big city, 320 square miles. You just can't build enough light rail at a low enough cost that voters will approve paying for it. The more light rail you build, the more people like it. But the more it costs, the less people like it. Somewhere in there is an equilibrium point, and if that equilibrium point is less than 50 percent, you lose. And that was the deal in Kansas City."
In reviewing the 2008 ballot results, Johnson and the council stumbled upon something curious: There was no real correlation between the proximity of voters to a proposed rail line and their votes. Light rail was unpopular in both the Northland and in southern parts of the city, near where it extended to Bannister Road. Basically, people residing more than five miles from City Hall tend to oppose light rail. But people who live within that radius consistently vote in favor of light rail.
"Not everybody wants to live downtown in a high-rise condo, and not everybody wants to live in the suburbs," Johnson says. "So the question became, 'How do you build something that will appeal to that particular downtown demographic?' We started looking for a plan that would fit the needs of an urban area, but not necessarily the transportation solution you'd use at Barry Road and I-29."
As Johnson and the council considered that question, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was starting to distribute $1.5 billion in TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants as part of the Obama administration's effort to stimulate the economy and reduce U.S. energy dependence.
"Around that time [Kansas City Area Transit Authority General Manager] Mark Huffer approached me and said, 'Russ, I think we should take a hard look at a streetcar.' "
Kansas City is hardly alone in the push for streetcars. Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Tucson and dozens of other U.S. cities have new projects before voters, under construction or already up and running. But KC has a chronically high per-capita murder rate, along with an unaccredited public-school system and sewer lines downtown that date back to the 1800s. It's not the first place you'd think to put a $100 million streetcar line.
And a streetcar isn't the first mode of transportation that leaps to mind when you think of ways to ease a spread-out metro's commuter crunch. Light rail moves fast, around 55 mph. Streetcars, even modern machines such as the one proposed for KC, are slow. They travel on tracks and remain at the mercy of traffic lights, congestion and speed limits.
"My opinion of streetcars has declined to some extent," says Yonah Freemark, an urbanist who studies architecture, planning and transportation and writes for The Atlantic's Cities blog. "They're chosen by city leaders because they're relatively cheap to build, but they often don't provide the transit improvements that cities need — for the pure and simple reason that they operate in the same lane as cars."