Unlike Charlotte, Kansas City's streetcar comes with less controversy

Unlike Charlotte, Kansas City's streetcar comes with less controversy


by Jeremy Markovich / NBC Charlotte


Posted on December 12, 2012 at 6:33 PM

Updated Thursday, Dec 13 at 6:14 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In Charlotte, the extension of the streetcar line has been so controversial, that in order to get a capital improvement plan passed, Mayor Anthony Foxx is willing to take it out altogether.

But in Kansas City, voters just passed a proposal to build a streetcar line that costs about the same.


It comes down to who pays.

Similar Costs, Different Payers

Kansas City’s line runs two miles. Charlotte’s streetcar line extension, the one that’s been a sticking point for city council, runs two-and-a-half.

Kansas City’s streetcar is expected to cost $102 million. Charlotte’s? $119 million.

But here’s the difference. In Charlotte, no matter where you live, you’d pay for part of the streetcar. If you live in Steele Creek, University City or Ballantyne, areas that are nowhere near the streetcar, you’d still pay.

In Kansas City, only people who live near the streetcar line have to pay for it, in the form of higher sales and property taxes. The city held a mail-in vote, but only for the people who live near the downtown district where the streetcar line would run. Wednesday evening, Kansas City mayor Sly James announced that the measure passed with more than 60% of the vote.

“If you live ten miles from downtown, your house and your stores won’t be taxed,” said Kansas City Councilman Russ Johnson, a streetcar proponent. “But if you’re inside that benefit district, you’ll pay for it.”

Most of the money will come from local taxes. $18 million comes from the federal government, which only asked that the money be spend on transportation. “We chose to spend it on the streetcar, rather than highways,” said Johnson.

Success From Failure

In 2008, Kansas City wanted to build a 14-mile, nearly $900 million dollar light rail line. City leaders put it up for a citywide vote. Voters said no. They had also voted down light rail proposals several times before.

“In 2008, we looked at the results, and we learned from that process,” said Johnson. “We learned we were going to have to come up with something different.”

So, they came up with plan. “The question here was never ‘if,’ it was ‘how,’” said David Johnson, who runs the transit advocacy site KClightrail.com. The use of special districts for funding isn’t new; Seattle and Portland used them to fund their streetcar lines. But the idea is starting to catch on. The city of Los Angeles asked people who live near its proposed streetcar line to fund it. More than 2/3 of voters there said yes.

Charlotte’s Struggles

Charlotte city leaders broke ground on a mile-and-a-half long streetcar starter line on Wednesday. It’ll run from Time Warner Cable Arena to Presbyterian Hospital. That part, which cost $37 million, is already paid for, and is expected to be up and running in 2015.

But the extension, which would run tracks from the Johnson C. Smith University area to Hawthorne Lane, was part of the reason why Charlotte city council voted down a capital improvement plan in June. Mayor Foxx expressed his disappointment, and now says in order to pass a citywide improvement plan that would fix roads, sidewalks and build six new police stations, he’s willing to cut the streetcar extension out completely.

If it stays in, the entire $119 million cost of the streetcar extension would be paid for by the city.

A spokesman for the mayor says the city is exploring other ways to fund the streetcar. A special budget workshop is set for December 17th.

As for Kansas City’s plan, Russ Johnson thinks he’s on to something. “This is the way other transportation improvements are going to be funded in the United States for the next 50 to 100 years,” he said.