KC streetcar ridership nosedives again, yet check out the optimists

steStreetcar ridership in Kansas City plunged for the sixth straight month in January. It’s now down a staggering 62 percent since summer highs.

Total passenger count was 89,660 last month, or about 2,900 a day. That’s way below previous months, as this table shows:

streetThe January total would have been even lower without continued strong Saturday ridership, such as on Jan. 21 (more than 8,200) and Jan. 28 (more than 7,300).

The steep drop-off in trips deserves attention, given the $2 million in city funds as well as sales tax revenue and a special assessment on property near the line, all invested in operating the streetcar.

However, this decline in passenger trips isn’t surprising. Lack of downtown events and cold weather are reducing ridership.

Here’s another interesting point I discovered this week: Kansas City certainly appears to be doing better than Cincinnati, another streetcar newcomer in 2016.

Its 3.6-mile downtown line carried fewer than 1,000 riders on 23 days from its September opening through December. That’s far below its 3,200-a-day goal.

By comparison, Kansas City’s 2.2-mile system carried more than 1,000 passengers in 2016 for all but one day since opening in May. For last year, the line averaged 5,830 riders daily, more than double its original projection of 2,700.

KC Streetcar Authority Executive Director Tom Gerend on Tuesday ticked off the realities in what’s become almost our monthly discussion about the future of a crucial component to the urban core’s vitality.

He expects Kansas City’s ridership numbers to be even lower in February but go up in spring. By May 2017, the authority will have what it’s been waiting for to make better judgments about the streetcar’s health: year-to-year comparisons.

Here’s more on the positive side, which I emphasize because the streetcar is bringing real value to downtown.

— A recent survey of downtown businesses showed “97 percent credited the streetcar with having a positive impact on their business and 80 percent have experienced a positive change in revenue.”

— Almost 1,400 new housing units are being built near the line, streetcar officials say, and expected to open in the next 18 months or so. That could slowly boost daily ridership equal to the number of new units, Gerend told me, based on what’s happened over the years in Portland, Ore.

— Future expansion is being investigated going north a few blocks to the riverfront and south several miles to the University of Missouri-Kansas City area. Of course, those are years away from completion, and will require millions upon millions of dollars of public revenue to build.

“Before you know it,” Gerend said, “it will be Big 12 tournament time” in March, bringing “full cars again.”

Yes, pessimists certainly still exist.

They also will be looking at year-to-year ridership totals to see if there is significant slippage. They may oppose the $227 million extension southward. And it’s certainly possible that downtown construction could slip or fall dramatically in the next few years.

But right now — despite the plummeting passenger count in winter months — the Kansas City streetcar gets the benefit of the doubt.