Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Desire Named Streetcar

For those of you who thought that potentially wasteful capital improvement in the "City of Fountains" was limited to a massive study group that seems intent to replace a perfectly good airport with one that's better suited to TSA security features and which has a better Food Court, "au contraire mon ami".  (That's French.  Look it up.)   

Not only is KC attempting to convince local taxpayers into funding the replacement of an airport known nation-wide as one of the most friendly to get into and out of at a cost them over $1.2 billion, it's also looking to add, or replace, upgrade (depending on who you talk to) chunks of its existing (and mostly under-used) public transportation system of buses with the more attractive (and expensive) alternative of streetcars. 

The 'initial phase' of this Streetcar system, which will run for some 2.2 miles, is ready to begin construction at an estimated cost of about $102 million.  While some $20 million in federal assistance has been secured (we thank you all for your contribution, of course), the bulk of the cost (along with its inevitable cost overruns) is to be paid by a 25-year, one-cent sales tax that will fall only on the neighborhood in which this phase of the system is to be built.  This tax was approved by voters in a rather shrewd ballot maneuver in which only residents of the area surrounding the line were able to vote on its approval, while business owners in the same area (unless they lived in their buildings) were not.  

While this new streetcar will be rather limited in route, it's expected by supporters to bring not only new businesses, but new (and rather high-priced) residential living to the area.  Perhaps I'm missing something in the thinking here, but other than the 'gee whiz' factor or riding the lines soon after their opening, I fail to see its benefits that new businesses will receive.  

While they will certainly get to be subject to the 'sales tax district' paying for the line, it would be surprising to find that their workers will get to use the line for their normal daily commute.  I say that because most of the residential projects being discussed in this tax district involve condos that go for $250,000+ and apartments that rent for $1,200 per month and more.  Even if we assumed that people shopping for housing in this range were those who normally ride public transportation (yeah, right ...) we're left with fact that other than the City Market, this area is a food desert with no grocery stores within the line's commuter route.

In typical government fashion however, that an expensive and perhaps unsustainable capital improvement project should never be limited by practicality or common sense, supporters are quick to tout that 'this is only the beginning'.  Before the initial stretch of track has even begun to be laid, before this concept has proven itself with increased ridership levels, increased interest in the neighborhood involved, or has in any way proved that it can pay for the massive capital investment involved; the city is already planning to add to it.   

Kansas City's City Council has in fact recently approved almost $2.5 million in funding to a consultant team to produce a route expansion study. A route on Main Street from Union Station to either 63rd Street or 75th Street, a second route from Independence Avenue that goes east to a yet-to-be determined end point, and a third from Linwood Boulevard or 31st Street to yet another undetermined end point have already been approved for further consideration.  If this expected additional 8.8 miles of track is finally approved by the city (and the bandwagon seems to have already gathered some serious momentum), it's estimated to cost taxpayers some $545 million.

Regardless of the apparent Dyslexic nature of this title, it's obvious that this is not about nostalgia over an old Tennessee Williams play written in 1947 or even a 1951 Elia Kazan movie starring Marlon Brando.  In fact, rather than even being a play on words of the title of the play "A Streetcar Named Desire" this post should probably have been filed under "Field of Dreams".  For it's the iconic line from this 1989 Phil Alden Robinson cinematic effort that, "If you build it, he will come" that seems to rule all discussion on the subject.  Speaking of discussion, Kevin Costner (who starred in the effort) might relate to Kansas City's legislators, who appear to be 'hearing voices' where subject is concerned.  Not only that, but his character's single minded devotion to nonsensical construction in the face of sanity, if not common sense certainly defines the thinking in KC on this pipe dream of a project.