The case for a downtown streetcar


On July 16, KCATA proposed a different kind of light rail for Kansas City: a 2.5-mile modern streetcar line serving as a downtown circulator between River Market and Crown Center.

First, some basic facts about the proposal:

  • Prior light rail studies indicate the “RCP” (River Market > Crown Center > Plaza) corridor is the best opportunity to reintroduce fixed rail transit in KC.
  • Capital costs (approximately $150 million) could be funded 100% by a TIGER grant program that’s part of the ARRA.
  • Operating costs (approximately $2-2.5 million annually) could come from new revenue sources adjacent to the route that would not require a city-wide public vote, likely through approval of a Transportation Development District.
  • The Greater Downtown Area Plan, while still in progress, recommends reintroduction of a downtown urban circulator.
  • The line would operate in mixed traffic, remove no on-street parking, and require no property acquisition for right of way.
  • The Downtown Council has indicated they may support the proposal.
  • Modern streetcar vehicles are now made in the US.
  • The proposal is not a complete rehash of the 14-mile plan voters rejected in November 2008, which was designed to bring commuters to downtown from the north, south, and east (although consultants noted earlier this year that only the RCP portion would have had a good shot at federal funding through existing programs).

Now, the tough part:

  • TIGER grants are competitive and are capped at $300 million per request and for each state; St. Louis and others will compete for all or part of that amount.
  • Every city, transit agency, railroad, MPO, and state DOT in the US can apply with separate proposals for the $1.5 billion that’s available nationwide.
  • Other Kansas City proposals from MARC, the Port Authority, Public Works (one for bike/ped/trails, another for roads), and the Kansas City Terminal Railway have been presented.
  • Funding will be granted at the complete discretion of the US DOT.

The dilemma for city leaders now is how best to package this or a combination of proposals to compete by the Sept. 15 deadline (insanely short by typical federal standards). US DOT has provided criteria and certainly indicated highways won’t be the top priority (sorry, MoDOT).

KCATA did not indicate exactly how, or if, the current MAX line would be affected. It’s important to note, however, that the MAX takes an overly-complicated route through downtown and could certainly benefit from a good straightening out.


8 Comments so far

  1. Peter Smith July 26th, 2009 11:12 pm

    did u just say 2.5 miles for $150 Million US dollars? like, real money?

    what in the world are y’all planning to put in the ground — rails made of solid gold?

  2. Thomas July 27th, 2009 8:57 am

    I think it sounds good, but I just hope the city council gets the proposal done in time…

    haha Yes, the rails are made of solid gold topped with diamonds. I honestly don’t understand how or why rail is so expensive. We should be able to cover the city with that amount of money. Oh well, I guess. It’s better than nothing.

  3. Dave July 27th, 2009 9:31 am

    installing a fixed guideway is expensive because you’re getting more than just the continuously-welded* steel rail:

    - Street reconstruction with embedded rails and utility relocation
    - Catenary and electrification connections
    - Four “in-service” streetcars (plus spares)
    - Maintenance facility and tracks to it
    - Basic stations (more like bus shelter, but unique)
    - Signage, route maps, branding
    - Transportation engineers make good money

    * continuously-welded rail is more expensive to buy/install than jointed rail of the past. it’s also sturdier (less friction), is lower maintenance (steel responds to our freeze/thaw cycle, just like asphalt), and provides a smoother ride (no clickety-clack).

    also, in case no one has noticed: there is very little left of our country’s steel industry, so it probably must be imported from china, japan, and russia.

    for comparison purposes, MAX BRT cost ~$21 million to construct over a 5-year period. vehicles will last about 12 years total (versus 25+ for streetcars).

  4. northlander July 27th, 2009 5:06 pm

    Great now R. Johnson,Mark Huffer and Dave finally say streetcars are the way to go after wasting 18 months pushing light rail. Chances are they will blow this one as well. So Dave why not just go the 18-24 inches and not move the utility lines and cut the cost?
    Lets see the plans for the stations or shelters and check the cost before the dollars go to high.

  5. Dave July 27th, 2009 5:15 pm

    *any* transit investment in KC is good at this point due to decades of disinvestment and bad attitudes about project specifics (not at all a veiled reference to practically every comment you’ve ever left here).

    we’re at the bottom of the barrel — both in real dollars, technology, political support, and actual metro coverage — compared to *all* peer cities. people in KC spend more time/money on personal auto transportation and have the extra pounds to show for it.

  6. Tony B. July 28th, 2009 9:19 am

    ed: comment deleted.

  7. Thomas July 29th, 2009 10:42 am

    SOOOOO true, Dave. I always think of this city as a “half-city”. We have so many attributes of a “real” city, and just as many that suggest to outsiders we are a giant suburb.

    It’s great to convince people of the need for a huge investment in public transit, but sometimes you just gotta go around the naysayers and do what is necessary to save dying cities.

  8. northlander August 1st, 2009 4:53 pm

    Dave the whole idea is to get a starter line. When you go for the gold by spending to much it kills the whole project. Get the starter line going and the rest will be easy if it works out. If you remember are group and the KC Star even said streetcars would do the trick,and we had just about the same route going all the way to UMKC and Troost to The River Market. This would serve the College and the Art students as well as those who live/ work downtown.