TransitKC

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 ourstreetcar.com, 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 http://www.16thcircuit.org/streetcar/
  2. Print your voter registration status** from http://kceb.org (“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 http://kceb.org. 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.

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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 http://www.16thcircuit.org/streetcar/. The public notice explaining the process is available here.

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A transit advocate’s manifesto

Hi, my name is David Johnson. I’m the author of this blog. This is my story.

First, I want to tell you that Kansas City will build a downtown streetcar, and it will kickstart a much-needed transit renaissance in the entire region. We’re closer than ever and the momentum is strong enough that I can confidently guarantee both. I wouldn’t have said that a year ago.

At a gathering of downtown residents last week, I encouraged people to speak at the April 17 streetcar public hearing and tell their story. It’s hard to argue with someone’s personal story and most people aren’t adept at defending public transportation spending, so making it personal is a good place to start. It later occurred to me that I should be telling my own story. Until now, I’ve hidden behind the keyboard.

I’m a small-town Kansas guy with a journalism degree. No experience relying on public transit until I moved downtown in 2004. Once I arrived here, it clicked. It really was like a light bulb. Transit exists here and it is useful? Indeed. And come to find out it’s more useful the more people and jobs there are nearby.

Fast forward to 2006. Clay Chastain succeeded in putting another transit petition initiative on the ballot. I voted for it, no big deal. But the day after it became a very big deal. 53% of Kansas City residents voted in desperation for something… anything to advance the state of transit. How could we seize this opportunity? Within a month, I began writing furiously. Since then, another plan was introduced and failed. Too big, not fully baked, tepid political support.

There had to be a better way. Sold the car and bought a bus pass. Traveled to nearly every mid-sized city in the US looking for clues why Kansas City was chronically underinvesting in transit. Read every news article Google could deliver. Attended a transit advocacy conference. Turns out, you need a political leader. No amount of advocacy can win these issues alone, I learned; but those leaders need you to have their backs.

Right now, we have that exact situation with downtown residents, Mayor Sly James, and Councilman Russ Johnson. The streetcar proposal is modest, yet still has the potential to spur that transit renaissance. Every downtown interest is being asked to chip in, avoiding the pitfalls of a citywide vote.

All the pieces are in place. Thank the Mayor and Council. See you in court tomorrow!

P.S. Follow me @kclightrail for live tweets from the courtroom, starting at 1:30 p.m. CST Tuesday.

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Engineering reveals streetcar details

The downtown streetcar project team is in the process of Advanced Conceptual Engineering (the next Federally-required step before construction begins) and has confirmed some technical details:

- Yes, there will be actual steel rails in the street (believe it or not, we get this question a lot). There will also be catenary lines to power the streetcar vehicles (and, thus, six transformer stations along the route).

- Stations will be at even-numbered streets along the curb, on the far side of each intersection, except at Union Station. That station will be center-island with a new, signalized mid-block crossing to connect with the existing Link skywalk. A far side installation will allow vehicles to make right turns unimpeded by a stopped streetcar.

- Main Street would be reconfigured with a two-way left turn lane (see above image). Streetcars would operate in the traffic lane, while on-street parking would be retained. Curbs may be extended with bump-outs at station stops (similar to some streets today in the Power & Light and Library districts). Currently, Main is a hodgepodge of shifting and peak-only bus lanes that seems to change every two blocks.

- Baltimore, Walnut, and Charlotte will be converted to two-way traffic, which will reduce demand on Main Street. Existing bus routes will move to Grand for the same purpose. Bike lanes are still on the drawing board for Grand, so that will also be their main thoroughfare (as well as Charlotte, which will connect to the Heart of America bike lane). Main will become “the streetcar street”, while Broadway, Grand, and Oak will be major through streets for vehicle traffic — all three have plenty of existing capacity.

- River Market service may consist of a counter-clockwise loop. From Delaware, streetcars would turn east on 5th, north on Grand, west on 3rd, then south again on Delaware back towards the Central Business District. There will be three stops in the River Market (5th & Delaware, 5th & Walnut, 3rd & Grand).

- Maintenance sites have been narrowed to three.

- Environmental assessment is about to begin; the City expects a Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI) by September.

- Vehicles have not been ordered. This item has the longest lead time, but funding needs to be in place first. If TIGER grant and TDD elections are successful, current schedule is to begin operations by April 30, 2015. Other cities have pooled equipment orders to speed delivery. Dozens of cities are planning modern streetcars, so pooling is a possibility.

All of the above is preliminary, but looking more and more like reality. Major questions still remain with utilities. The good news is that much of the water and sewer infrastructure needs replaced anyway to comply with the Clean Water Act.
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Paying for our streetcar

Now that the $25 million Federal funding application has been submitted for the downtown streetcar, it’s time to recap how we’ll pay for the $76 million remainder — via a Transportation Development District.

Bear with us, because this can get pretty wonky.

First, some background. The TDD is an economic development tool defined by Missouri statute. The law’s original intent was to afford voters an opportunity to organize and fund transportation improvements themselves using a sales tax or special assessment. In practice, most TDD’s in Missouri are drawn around strip malls and highway interchanges, thus allowing only property owners to form and set levies. Regardless of who forms a TDD, the main milestone is for a county judge to rule a TDD petition lawful. Once that requirement has been met, two votes occur within the district — formation and levies. Kansas City’s day in Jackson County court is April 17*.

Second, localized funding has been used heavily in streetcar projects, mostly due to lack of Federal support. Portland and Seattle have projects up and running that were also financed by special districts; others under construction have taken the same approach. The thinking is that the investment in a given corridor benefits those in that corridor the most; why not give them the opportunity to make the investment the City cannot afford to make?

We should note that the City ponied up $2.5 million for engineering, and will be one of the single largest contributors to the TDD (only DST’s reported annual contribution is higher).

Finally, we have the current situation with our streetcar. Once a judge rules that Kansas City’s TDD petition (#1216-CV02419) is lawful, voters will decide — like they decide many taxes and levies that property owners don’t get to vote on — with a simple majority of ballots cast.

TDDs exist in Kansas City and all over the state. Even the St. Louis Loop Trolley is using a TDD, as does the Plaza to pay for your “free” parking garages (if you consider a 1% sales tax premium “free”, even for those who walk or take transit there). There is nothing unconstitutional about voters determining the level of taxation within any municipal boundary. Community Improvement Districts — an economic development tool that can also levy assessments on property – are widely used throughout Kansas City to provide better services than the City can provide (security, litter removal, mitigating panhandlers). The TDD is no different, other than being limited to transportation uses. Downtown residents want a streetcar and this is the quickest, most effective way to build it. Period.

* The April 17 TDD hearing is for public comment. The actual legal decision will occur the next day and is not open for public comment, although the public can attend. We’ll bring you live updates from both on Twitter @kclightrail. To join the effort, like this page: https://www.facebook.com/streetcarneighbors

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TIGER application submitted

The City submitted the TIGER Grant Application for the downtown streetcar project earlier this week and has posted the document online.

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Jackson County transit plan still fluid

We thought Jackson County might have made a recommendation for mode and alignment this week, but we were wrong. A third round of public meetings was on the calendar for March, but have moved to April. Don’t expect a final answer until May or June.

The I-70 and Rock Island (MO-350) “Commuter Corridors” have been under analysis as long as the downtown streetcar, but with longer distances and a “common segment” dilemma there is still no indication which direction the final plan will take. One thing’s for sure: it will not be the exact plan that County Executive Mike Sanders proposed… and that’s okay.

At Wednesday’s stakeholder meeting, consultants eliminated the option of running diesel multiple units (DMUs) on Truman Road between Union Station and the Truman Sports Complex (the “common segment” of the original plan). The cost and impacts are too high for that route/mode combination (see above photo). The Terminal Railway trench that runs behind Union Station is also out. DMUs are still in play, but would terminate in the River Market via Kansas City Southern‘s existing tracks. The original Sanders plan [PDF] had DMUs running on Truman Road to connect to the tracks behind Union Station.

Other mode options are enhanced streetcar, bus rapid transit, express bus, or some combination of the four. Enhanced streetcar is defined as a modern streetcar that makes fewer stops and perhaps runs in dedicated right-of-way. An example in this case would be running streetcars down Main Street to Linwood Boulevard, then all the way east to the Sports Complex, where they could run (up to 55 mph) in the Rock Island corridor without mixing with traffic.

With the availability of hybrid streetcars like the demo at Union Station last summer, there is no longer a need to run catenary and poles along an entire route. The hybrids simply charge at station stops and can go as far as five miles before recharging. We always prefer electric over diesel. If both the Jackson County and downtown plans chose the same vehicle type, riders would have a single-seat ride into the region’s top employment and entertainment destination.

While the consultants and politicians figure out the final plan — which will include more than just two rail lines — an education campaign is due to begin. Jackson County cities have ponied up cash to fund that effort through the Regional Transit Alliance using talent who’ve actually done successful transit campaigns before (versus just hiring the same tired locals). Expect ads to look and sound something like this or this. Early polling indicates strong support for a comprehensive transit plan and a 1-cent sales tax.

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