Streetcar Named Potential
by Jeff Pinkerton
Last week, downtown Kansas City voters approved funding for a starter streetcar system. The $100 million system will run down Main Street between the River Market and Union Station.
The new streetcar line will make all parts of our re-energized downtown more accessible to residents, workers and visitors. Guests staying at Crown Center won’t need a cab to get to an event at the Convention Center. Employees at Hallmark will be able to shop at the River Market without getting their cars out of the garage. We could go on with more examples of how the initial line will make getting around downtown easier and better. But it is important to understand what else this project represents.
It is much more than just a short streetcar line.
It is a start.
It is potential.
Every rail transit line in the country had to start small. In many cases, a starter line was needed to demonstrate rail transit’s effectiveness to a sometimes skeptical public. But once the starter line was up and running and the benefits to riders and to businesses located along the line were understood, calls to expand the system were loud and clear. It is easy to imagine a successful starter line here could be extended down to the Plaza area, connecting the key gems in Kansas City’s crown and giving a strong economic boost to the corridor between them. And additional lines to the east and west could make it easier for residents to get to jobs, shopping and entertainment in the heart of the city.
A solid transit spine could greatly influence the region’s commuting patterns. According to the Census Bureau, just 1.2 percent of workers in the Kansas City area currently take transit to work. Out of the 50 largest metro areas, only four metros (Indianapolis, Raleigh, Birmingham and Oklahoma City) have lower percentages.
Current bus lines could easily connect to the rail line and suddenly make commuting to work via transit — even from the suburbs — not just a possible option, but an attractive one. Even a small change in our commuter patterns could translate into real benefits in terms of congestion and air quality.
Beyond these substantial benefits, there are economic benefits as well. In cities with light rail, properties along the rail line generally see increased values compared to those more removed from the line. Rail can be a powerful economic development tool. This factor is very important, but often overlooked.
Through the Creating Sustainable Places initiative, MARC and regional city and county governments are already looking at ways to link regional activity centers through a network of corridors. A rail line running up Kansas City’s spine would anchor such a network.
Construction on the downtown streetcar line should begin next year, with an anticipated completion sometime in 2015. This starter line may start out small, but it could very well be the catalyst to a whole new way of thinking about and accessing our city.