KC streetcar expansion momentum appears almost unstoppable

streetccRecent events indicate this is a safe prediction: The crucial expansion of the Kansas City Streetcar line through midtown will be approved.

Granted, the schedule shows that the mail-in election process — which started this week — may not end until early March 2018. Even if everything goes according to plan, the longer line won’t open until at least 2022.

Still, the bigger and better streetcar project looks blessed at this point, with unstoppable momentum. (Caveat: Getting federal funds could be a problem; more on that later.)

On Thursday, the Kansas City Streetcar Authority issued a request for proposals for design services for the longer line, starting at Union Station and continuing south on Main Street to near the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Here are other sunny points for streetcar boosters to boast about.

— The downtown line passenger counts are surging as the weather warms, just as supporters expected. That indicates the streetcar, which opened May 6 of last year, is not a passing fancy.

Ridership went from the all-time monthly low of 89,660 in January to 125,935 in February to 183,077 in March. That was the third highest month so far, behind only July’s 233,683 and the 204,251 in August.

— Economic development near the existing downtown line has continued to ramp up. That indicates similar economic development projects could follow in the midtown area.

— Kansas City voters this week showed they are in love with higher taxes, and the leadership of Mayor Sly James — a strong backer of the longer streetcar line.

Voters approved an $800 million bond package for a wide  range of capital improvements, financed with an escalating property tax increase, plus a new one-eight-cent citywide sales tax for central city economic development.

— Finally, the very people who will be voting on the possible expansion live in the part of town that often contains the strongest supporters of Kansas City’s tax-and-spend proposals.

Could something go wrong on the march to expansion?

Sure.

One big hurdle will be to get federal transit funds out of a Trump administration that may not be friendly to these kinds of projects. Obtaining local voters’ approval should help with that process, and Congress may not go along with any Trump plan to slice transit funding anyway.

Maybe Kansas City voters look at their property tax bills this fall and decide they don’t want to pay the higher property assessments that streetcar expansion could bring.┬áMaybe the proposed higher sales tax for the project will make people too uncomfortable.

Perhaps the downtown line will suffer a sustained ridership slump or a physical breakdown that calls into question how well the entire system could work in the future.

Maybe streetcar backers will make a big public relations mistake along the way.

Then again, that looks like grasping at straws at this point.

Streetcar boosters do not have completely clear sailing to victory in early 2018,. Political surprises are always possible. But expansion appears to be a very safe bet right now.

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