Summer of Streetcar


Summer is here and the Phase 1 streetcar project will begin construction soon. Here’s what to expect for the remainder of 2013:

1. Vehicles. The city is in the final stages of selecting one of two modern streetcar vehicles — the CAF Urbos 3 (above) and the Siemens S70 Streetcar. Both are available through option purchases with other cities currently building streetcar lines (Cincinnati and Salt Lake City, respectively). Completed vehicles could arrive for testing in as little as 18 months.

2. Utility relocation. Public and private utilities will relocate entire lines, or just their access points, away from the streetcar tracks and new overhead wire. The final design for the track location is expected soon. Utility work will likely generate the longest disruption along the route since a few spots — mostly in the River Market and Crossroads — haven’t been fully unearthed in a century. The sequence of work will be determined by the Construction Manager (a contract to be awarded in July) in collaboration with the utilities. Contractors are required to maintain access to businesses throughout this phase.

3. Main Street bridge over I-670. While not required for, or funded by, the streetcar project the city has chosen to replace the functionally obsolete Main Street bridge over I-670 before the streetcar tracks are installed. In addition to a new design, the bridge will be raised to meet the Federal Highway Administration’s required height clearances. It will be completely closed for about six weeks during construction.

4. Maintenance Facility. Once the final Columbus Park site has been selected and purchased, the city will finalize the facility design and break ground. Often referred to as the VMF, this is where Kansas City’s four modern streetcars will be stored and maintained. As with all new city structures, the maintenance facility will be certified LEED Gold or above.

The city has also applied for a $20 million federal grant. Competition is again fierce, but with local funding now secured the project is in a better spot than last year. Bonds to finance the remaining construction activities will be sold once the legal challenge to the funding district is settled (oral arguments will be heard July 16).

Phase 2 is also advancing rapidly. Seven corridors will be studied south of the river starting this month, and an extension north across the Missouri River will be jointly studied by MARC, Kansas City, and North Kansas City starting in July.


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Top 12 transit stories of 2012


Yours truly and Streetcar Neighbors co-founder Matt Staub were interviewed by KSHB at the final streetcar election party. Photo by Matt Kleinmann. Full video coverage by Transit Action Network.


2012 was absolutely a banner year for transit news in Kansas City. Here are the stories that captured the most attention:

1. Downtown streetcar fully funded. Two elections — one to form the special streetcar district, then a follow-up to actually fund the project — passed with strong majorities. Federal funding, initially expected in the form of a $25 million TIGER IV grant, instead came from two locally-programmed federal sources. Toss in a few cost-cutting measures and you have Kansas City’s first fully-funded rail transit project. Construction starts in 2013, with Phase 2 extensions already being discussed.

2. Bike share launch. Twelve stations, 90 bikes… modest, yes, but beating New York, LA, Chicago, and even Portland to the punch. One might question launching in the middle of a heat wave with little infrastructure to encourage cycling, but new non-profit Kansas City B-Cycle could not be deterred. One of the quickest and highest visibility projects to hit downtown in years, just in time for an Bronze designation as a Bike Friendly Community. Phase 2 expansion to Midtown and the Plaza starts in 2013.

3. Jackson County draft transit plans released. Self-propelled diesel vehicles running along I-70 to Oak Grove using existing tracks, with a second phase running along the Rock Island right-of-way to Lee’s Summit — the dream of County Executive Mike Sanders finally realized after years of talking to anyone who’d listen. Both corridors wrapped up most of their Alternatives Analysis work in 2012. A countywide sales tax vote on a comprehensive transit plan — that includes the two rail lines, more bus service, and a Katy Trail extension into the city — is expected in 2013.

4. KCATA service changes. Major changes to 54 bus routes, the first significant makeover of KCATA’s network in decades, were introduced in phases starting in 2012. Noteworthy changes include improved Main and Troost MAX frequency, service to Zona Rosa, and elimination/consolidation of underperforming routes. Improved service to KCI and a reconfiguring of bus travel through downtown are on tap for 2013.

5. Making the streetcar free to ride. The freshly-formed Kansas City Streetcar Authority voted in September to eliminate fares, at least initially, on the downtown streetcar. Initial ridership estimates assumed most riders would pay, so this change all but assures the line’s success. Turns out it costs money to collect money…

6. Transit education campaign. Commercials and billboards began educating Jackson County residents about the benefits of public transit over the summer. Funded collectively by the cities within Jackson County and administered by the Regional Transit Alliance, the goal is to help residents see how “transit works for us,” even if they don’t plan on using it.

7. Keeping Clay Chastain off the ballot. Chastain has again garnered enough signatures to get on the ballot with an even larger transit plan and the city has rightfully stood up and refused to put it on the ballot… so, of course, he sued, lost, and has appealed. That appellate court ruling is due in the coming weeks.

8. Transit ridership up across the metro. Boosted by a new student pass program (first UMKC, now Rockhurst) and an improving economy, ridership increased over 2011 on KCATA (5.50%) and The JO (8%) even as budgets were tightened and fewer services were offered.

9. The JO service cuts. Expiring/reduced federal funding, reduced state funding, and lack of political will all contributed to another year of service reductions and route eliminations for Johnson County Transit. While pro-transit County Commissioner Steve Klika did win in November, prospects aren’t good for The JO sticking around in its current form beyond 2014. Cuts takes effect in January.

10. October bus driver attacks. Two separate incidents, one of which went viral, were a reminder that bus drivers should be respected and not physically assaulted. Suspects in both crimes have been apprehended thanks to a quick public response.

11. TIGER I grant improvements. $10 million each for North Oak, Metcalf, and State Avenue, awarded in 2010. Service was improved on North Oak as part of KCATA’s recent changes, but challenges are ahead for Unified Government (State) and Johnson County (Metcalf) to uncover enough funding (and place-making) to make their services attractive to more than just the transit dependent. Ever stood around at 110th & Metcalf?

12. Independence breaks off from KCATA. While getting a lower price from vendor First Transit (who also operates The JO, which also split from KCATA in the 90s), the City of Independence has had a few startup issues with their local services. Hopefully 2013 will see improved interoperability with KCATA’s remaining Independence routes.


Downtown KC streetcar is now fully funded

December 11 was the final deadline — 550 ballots were counted and certified the following day (video | news). With this win, the downtown streetcar is now fully funded (in addition to previously approved federal funding).

This time money was on the line and nearly half (337) of the second election’s voters did not participate in the first election. Supporters gathered at Nara in the Crossroads to celebrate victory with Mayor Sly James and Councilmen Russ Johnson and Jim Glover. Full results were:

Question 1 (1% TDD sales tax):

351 yes

198 no

64% passed

Question 2 (special assessments on TDD property):

344 yes

206 no

63% passed

In the first election, 460 ballots were counted:

Question 1 (formation of the TDD):

319 yes

141 no

69% passed

The City Council immediately began advancing the project again, putting two ordinances on the docket that authorized the Final Design contract with HDR, Inc. and authorize bonds to finance construction. HDR completed the Alternatives Analysis and Advanced Conceptual Engineering phases; they are also currently involved in streetcar projects in Dallas, Tucson, and D.C.

The TDD Board will meet on Dec. 17 to approve the sales tax and assessments, a formality that is expected to occur without delay.

Ground breaking is planned for Spring 2013 with utility work and construction starting in Summer 2013. Operations are still on schedule to begin in 2015.

Councilman Glover said he was committed to expanding the streetcar “throughout the 4th District”, which includes extensions south to UMKC, west to the Bottoms, and east along Independence Avenue.

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Pitch’s Best of KC 2012 Reader’s Choice list!

The Pitch’s Best of Kansas City 2012 was released today and made the Reader’s Choice list for Best Local Blog! Granted, #3 filed under the Reader’s Choice section — there isn’t a editorial choice for Best Local Blog — isn’t exactly earth-shattering, but we’ll take it.

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The second (and final) downtown streetcar election

The second (and final) downtown streetcar election has been scheduled and will consist of two questions (one for the sales tax, one for the special assessments on residential, commercial, and municipal property — vote yes for both, as both must pass for either to take affect!). The judge’s ruling is here.

  • 8/31-10/2 – Ballot request period (application now available!)
  • 10/30 – Ballots mailed
  • 12/11 – Ballots due

The TDD Board consists of Mayor Sly James, Port Authority Chair George Wolf, residential property owner Matthew Staub, and commercial property owner Jeff Krum (who is also CFO of Boulevard Brewing Company). Mayor James is Chair and Staub is Vice Chair of the TDD Board.

The Kansas City Streetcar Authority was formed on Aug. 3 and consists of downtown stakeholders and city appointees. It is charged with operating the streetcar and consulting on remaining engineering and construction activities with Public Works. The Authority has yet to meet or elect officers.

As soon as this second election is final, the city can issue bonds and start construction. Operation is still planned for 2015.

Separately, the countywide sales tax for transit has been moved out to 2013.

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Landslide streetcar election win, funding gap closed, expansion discussion begins

It was another big week for the downtown Kansas City streetcar project:

  • 69% of downtown voters said yes to the Transportation Development District’s formation,
  • The City announced the project’s funding gap has been closed, and
  • Councilman Russ Johnson released a list of proposed Phase 2 expansions.

TDD election successful

While process whittled the number of votes cast to 460 from 603 original requests, the winning result was still a resounding victory that was easily predicted based on past transit elections. Downtowners simply want transit options and are willing to pay for them. The final tally was 319 yes, 141 no. The TDD was officially formed the next day in a ruling [PDF] by 16th Circuit Court Judge Charles Atwell.

The same day the TDD was officially formed, the City formed the Kansas City Streetcar Authority, a new non-profit that will run day-to-day operations of the streetcar and advise the City on remaining engineering and construction activities. [Disclosure: I will be serving on the Authority's Board].

Here’s plenty of coverage from the major outlets:

The formation of the TDD kicks off a host of administrative tasks for that entity. River Market resident Matt Staub will represent residents on the TDD Board, joining Mayor Sly James, and Port Authority President & CEO Michael Collins. A commercial property representative will also join the Board. TDD Board meetings are public; the first meeting should occur in late August.

Funding gap closed

Councilman Russ Johnson announced at the streetcar election watch party that a $25 million gap — left by an unsuccessful application for a federal TIGER IV grant — has been filled by:

The streetcar was the highest scoring (79) project on the Missouri-side STP project list. The next highest ranked project was 71 and the lowest was 33. Per the STP Committee, the highest scoring project has never not been funded (either in whole or part). When engineering completes, additional cost savings may be identified.

Expansion discussion opened

Expansion beyond the 2-mile starter line was always on the table, now Councilman Johnson and his colleagues from the 3rd and 4th Districts have publicly opened that discussion to entice neighborhoods to sign on. A PDF map is here, but the corridors are:

  • Independence Avenue (Grand Avenue to Topping Avenue) – 4.4 miles
  • 12th Street East (Main Street to Jackson Avenue) – 4.2 miles
  • UMKC (Pershing to 51st) – 4.1 miles
  • 18th Street East (Main Street to Benton Boulevard) – 1.8 miles
  • Southwest Boulevard (Main Street to State Line Road) – 3.0 miles
  • 12th Street West (Main Street to Genessee Street) – 1.4 miles
  • North Kansas City (3rd Street to NE 32nd Avenue) – 3.1 miles

Of course, all expansion is subject to additional funding. Got a favorite one? Let’s hear about it in comments.

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Streetcar election, engineering continue

Kansas City wasn’t a winner in the ultra-competitive TIGER grant program, yet the streetcar continues with plenty of political backing. The mail-in election addressing 75% of the project cost wraps July 31; early returns are positive, with half of eligible voters already returning ballots.

Only one of the seven streetcar projects that applied for TIGER actually won: Fort Lauderdale (press release). They applied once before and were denied. This time, all of their outstanding pieces were in place (local and state funding).

Fortunately, many options exist for closing Kansas City’s streetcar funding gap (in no particular order):

Value engineering: Basically trimming scope while providing the same basic service. An entire block has already been eliminated from the route (see above photo). The city could also save money ordering expensive components (vehicles, rail) by teaming up with another city, perhaps even Fort Lauderdale (they also plan to launch in 2015).

Design/Build: The city could (and probably will) hire one vendor to design and build the streetcar line in one contract. This delivery method was used for the new Bond Bridge and is increasingly common as cities and states look to save money on expensive capital projects.

Reduced lending costs: Since TDD assessments will only raise $10 million annually, construction costs will be financed with city-backed bonds. The life of those bonds could range from 10 to 25 years, meaning lots of interest. The lower the interest rate, the lower the overall cost. Rates are very low now — lower than what the baseline budget assumes — but no one can predict what rates will be when bonds are sold before construction starts. Regardless, Missouri’s state infrastructure bank (PDF) is another option that could reduce interest rates to what the market can provide.

Other Federal transit funding: The Small Starts program is the most obvious, since that’s where transit projects under $250 million typically go first; both of our MAX routes were funded through Small Starts. The city is also seeking funds from the Surface Transportation Program (STP) and Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) — both administered through MARC.

Crowd-funding: Crossroads start-up Neighborly is launching, which will allow anyone in the world to donate as little as $1 directly to the project (in exchange for perks, which start at the $10 level). While it might not raise $25 million, every dollar raised through Neighborly avoids lending costs that contribute significantly to the overall price tag. [Disclosure: I serve on Neighborly's advisory board.]

Jackson County: A 1-cent countywide transit sales tax is being eyed for November. County officials have shown interest in making sure the streetcar is completely funded, since their regional rail plans rely on the streetcar to distribute riders to the Central Business District.

PIAC: The streetcar is on next year’s PIAC wish list, which could net another million or two from existing city infrastructure funds (as it did in 2012).

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How to vote for the streetcar

The City has chosen a mail-in election for the downtown streetcar. Since the Circuit Court is overseeing the formation of the Transportation Development district that will fund the streetcar, they are also handling the mail-in election.

Here’s how to participate:

  1. Print the ballot application from
  2. Print your voter registration status** from (“Check Your Voter Status”)
  3. Send them back to the court (hand-deliver, mail, or fax) by 5 p.m. Tuesday, May 22. If mailing, allow enough time for delivery by May 22.

If you don’t request a ballot you cannot vote, just like absentee voting. You must live within the TDD boundary to apply for a ballot, since only those properties will pay the special assessments. The Downtown Neighborhood Association has a calculator for residents to determine their annual assessment.

Next steps:

  • June 1 - U.S. Department of Transportation will reveal if the streetcar has won all or part of $25 million TIGER grant request
  • June 19 – Circuit Court will mail ballots to those who requested them
  • July 31 – Completed ballots (vote YES for the streetcar) must be returned to the Court

This first vote is only to form the TDD and set maximum assessments. Final special assessments rates will be set at a second election later this year. The City is actively working to find additional funding sources to reduce the assessments, including the one that they will pay on all municipal property.

All 3,400 qualified voters (those registered who live within the TDD boundary) were mailed ballot applications by the streetcar campaign on May 8. The envelope contained a letter from Mayor Sly James explaining the project, a map of the TDD, and the official ballot application.

The entire TDD sits within Ward 1. That electoral ward voted over 60% in favor of the November 2008 light rail plan.

Another round of public meetings will be held May 15-17. Follow us on Twitter for more frequent updates, as well as the Streetcar Neighbors Facebook page.

** UPDATE! We’ve had reports that some registered voters aren’t showing up at If this happens to you, please call the Kansas City Election Board (816-842-4820) and have them email you that you are, in fact, registered. Print that email as proof and enclose it with your ballot application. Do NOT mail your application after Monday, May 21 since it must be RECEIVED by 5 p.m. on Tuesday. Please fax the application and your voter registration status to the number on the form or hand-deliver to the Jackson County Courthouse in downtown Kansas City.

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County’s transit plan becomes clearer

Last week saw a third set of open houses to narrow alternatives for two transit corridors being studied in Jackson County — East (I-70) and Southeast (Rock Island/MO-350). There isn’t a lot of good news for fans of the original Sanders plan, but there are still some very real opportunities.

First, the bad news: A 1% countywide sales tax only generates $80 million annually. That may sound like a lot, but it isn’t much when you’ve got two $500 million rail lines you want to build and operate. Selecting alternatives close to the original Sanders plan leaves nothing for connecting buses (polling indicates this is necessary) or any significant operating budget (absolutely necessary). The tough decision ahead is to pick one corridor to build rail, or just go “all in” with buses.

Pick one corridor that scores best with the Feds and voters. That corridor is probably Rock Island.

Four alternatives remain for Rock Island (see corresponding line colors on above photo):

  • Bus Rapid Transit (similar to MAX) from Lee’s Summit, continuing along Linwood Boulevard and US-71 (purple line)
  • DMUs on existing tracks terminating in the River Market via land adjacent to Union Pacific Railroad’s Neff Yard (orange line)
  • Enhanced Streetcar on new tracks from downtown Raytown, running along Linwood to Main, then sharing tracks with downtown streetcar (blue line)
  • Express Buses running on MO-350 to I-435, then I-70 to 10th & Main (green line)

Of the four, the Enhanced Streetcar — defined as a modern streetcar vehicle that makes fewer stops once it leaves denser urban areas — would be a boon for the city and the county. Most Jackson County voters live in Kansas City; any plan that skips most of Kansas City might be at risk with urban voters. Linwood is denser than most suburban areas these lines would serve, which improves our chances for Federal funding. This alternative also has the strongest economic development potential and would help extend the streetcar line south to the Plaza/UMKC.

Voters also want rail and have been prepped for a plan that includes it, as well as service to Truman Sports Complex and Union Station (the revised DMU option for Rock Island would bypass Union Station). Focusing on Rock Island also preserves that corridor for an extension of the Katy Trail into downtown KC, an absolute necessity for any sales tax plan. While some well-heeled Lee’s Summit residents are opposed to anything resembling a train, none of them are opposed to a bike trail.

As for the I-70 corridor, choosing any rail option on the Southeast line pretty much excludes rail for I-70. Since the remaining I-70 rail option (DMU) now skips Truman Sports Complex, Union Station, and the Central Business District, it would likely not score well with the Feds or voters… leaving us with express buses to build ridership and serve more communities directly.

If you missed the open houses, please leave a comment online.


Judge advances streetcar district

Judge Charles Atwell today issued his judgement [PDF] on the Transportation Development District the City sought to fund construction and operation of the 2-mile downtown streetcar.

The major question was whether the various assessments — on commercial, residential, and municipal property; a sales tax; and a additional assessment on commercial surface lots — presented an “undue burden” on any property owner. The judge ruled that while the levies would be a burden, no one is being singled out and the rates aren’t “disproportionate to that of other property owners.”

The judge heard testimony at a public hearing on April 17 (see photo above) and allowed the petitioners to make their legal case on April 18 (I was a supporting petitioner). Three commercial property owners showed up to oppose. Supporters outnumbered them, and even a few supporting commercial property owners were on hand to level things out. Deliberation was expected to take between one and two weeks.

Today’s ruling immediately starts a mail-in election (ballots may also be hand-delivered to the court):

  • Monday, April 30 (8 a.m.) - Ballot requests begin
  • Tuesday, May 22 (5 p.m.) - Ballot requests end
  • Monday, June 19 – Ballots mailed to voters
  • Tuesday, July 31 (5 p.m.) – Ballots due

You must be registered to vote at an address inside the TDD boundary at the time you request a ballot. Check your registration status here.

Of course, we will have our answer on the TIGER grant application by the time this is all over. Not receiving that grant doesn’t end the project, but just delays it beyond the current 2015 target.

UPDATE: The application to request a ballot has been posted at The public notice explaining the process is available here.


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