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In 2010, the city partnered with Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders on an application for a federal Alternatives Analysis grant — about $540,000 to study KC's public-transportation needs. (Sanders wanted to study underutilized rail corridors for commuter-rail use in eastern Jackson County.) This one was awarded; the county got two-thirds of the grant, and the city took a third.
"That was a watershed moment for the streetcar," Johnson says. "It's one thing to go to the council and say, 'Hey, I've got a great idea.' They say, 'Great.' Then you say, 'Can I have some money for it?' And they say, 'Well, that's not such a great idea.' So getting federal backing was important. All of a sudden, I could say, 'We're going to study this and educate people on it, and the federal government is paying for it, so there's obviously some merit to it. It's not some Clay Chastain back-of-the-napkin plan.' "
Johnson continues: "We went into that study with a very determined mind-set. It was not a study where we were going to say, 'OK, streetcar sounds good, could be good, but let's move on.' We knew that if the streetcar came out as the best alternative for our needs, we would move immediately into implementation."
Emboldened by the study, City Hall drew up a new streetcar plan, which is the proposal now before voters. It also filed a petition, this past February, to create a Transportation Development District.
Nobody would be talking about streetcars right now had the city not established this special district, a bong-shaped area that encompasses roughly everything south of the Missouri River, east of Broadway, west of Locust, and north of Union Station. Basically, it allows the city to circumvent a proven-loser citywide vote by confining the streetcar ballot to residents within the TDD.
That's about 3,600 registered voters, only 460 of whom returned ballots in the election about whether to create the TDD. That measure passed in August, 319-141, setting up the December 11 election on whether to build that $100 million streetcar. Of the TDD's registered voters, only 697 applied to receive the mail-in ballots for the streetcar measure.
Johnson points out that 697 of 3,600 is an 18-percent turnout — about average for a nonpresidential election. He also notes that TDDs are designed to do exactly what the streetcar TDD is doing. "The point of TDDs is to create a transportation project that would normally not occur through other means," he says. "Otherwise, why have the Transportation Development District statute at all?"
But so few people voting on a project this big doesn't sound average to some people. In fact, it sounds a little undemocratic.
Keith Novorr, owner of Michael's Fine Clothing, at 1830 Main, says, "When you've got a situation where there's a couple hundred people voting on a project of this magnitude, it's legal, I guess. But is it ethical? I don't think so."
Rocky Horowitz, owner of Bob Jones Shoes, at 1914 Grand, adds: "This is an issue that will impact the entire downtown for years to come, and it's going to be decided by a lot of people who happen to be renting apartments downtown right now and might just as well be gone in six months."
Downtown property owners, though, object to the plan's financial architecture more than the balloting process. That's because if it passes, they'll largely be the ones paying for it.
In June, when a fourth round of TIGER grants was awarded, KC's bid for $25 million (to cover a quarter of the streetcar project) was denied. "It is increasingly clear in today's political and economic climate in Washington that if we want something done, we will need to do it ourselves," Mayor James said at the time. "We can and will make this happen."