February 20, 2024

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Is It Time to End KC Streetcar Experiment?

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President Trump’s budget proposal could spell eventual doom for the Kansas City street car, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing according to Randal O’Toole, a writer for the CATO institute and blogger known as the Antiplanner.

In a post entitled, “How does Kansas City measure success?” he questions whether the $102 million street car is worth the public expense.

the real measure of KC streetcar success is whether it accomplished its goals in the most cost-effective ways possible. One blogger argues the KC streetcar is a failure by that measuring stick.

According to O’Toole, the real measure of KC streetcar success is whether it accomplished its goals in the most cost-effective ways possible, but city officials use ridership numbers as a measuring stick.

“When the city was planning the project, it admitted that buses could have provided better (because more frequent) service for a fifth of the capital cost and no greater operating cost,” O’Toole writes. “The analysis claimed, without any real justification, that streetcars would attract twice as many riders as buses.”

Officials projected the KC streetcar would transport 2,900 people on weekdays, but 6,800 used the free transportation on weekdays during the first few months of operation. O’Toole notes that original projections didn’t include event-related rides, but the real numbers include event riders. Its biggest ridership day was Saturday, May 6–the same day Garth Brooks hosted two concerts at the Sprint Center.

“It’s hard to claim success with a straight face when you are giving something away,” O’Toole writes.

Today, ridership is declining. It’s fallen below 5,300 per weekday. O’Toole writes street cars are twice the length of city buses, but hold only 34 “hard plastic” seats. That’s compared to a double-decker bus, which holds up to 80.

“Kansas City is paying $11.9 million for two more cars, which would be enough to buy nearly 30 buses with plush seats, on-board wifi, and other amenities, or at least 15 double-decker buses,” O’Toole writes.

Despite the hefty expense, some Kansas City voters are being asked in an odd mail-in election, to support the creation of a transportation development district for additional expansion. Only voters who apply for and are approved for a ballot may vote in the election. Ballots must be returned to the Jackson County Election Office by Aug. 1.

Officials then and now claim the streetcar spurned development better than buses, because it offers permanence. Those are claims O’Toole rejects.

The streetcar was built in an area of the city already undergoing gentrification. Before the streetcar was built, the area saw $6 billion worth of new development–much of it financed by tax-increment financing.

“If the goal is economic development, then the city doesn’t understand how economic development works,” O’Toole writes.

Buses offer more permanence than streetcars, and O’Toole uses history to prove his case. In 1910, 1,000 American cities had streetcar lines. By 1972, only six remained.

“By 1930, almost all of those cities had buses,” he said. “Today, they still do. Buses have lasted longer than streetcars in most cities which makes them more permanent than rails.”

Trump’s budget proposal shaves $16.2 billion from the U.S. Department of Transportation budget, including limiting or eliminating TIGER grants for local projects like KC’s streetcar. The limitation on federal money may cause city officials to rethink expansion.

“If the goal is to spend someone else’s money without oversight, the Kansas City streetcar is a great success. If the goal is to cost-effectively move people, it is an utter failure,” O’Toole says.

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