The DIY Approach to Expanding Light Rail

Transit advocacy group hopes to push streetcar southward

   And speaking of Clay Chastain: I see the thorn in the side of both City Hall and Kansas City transit advocates is back again with another cure-all prescription for what doesn’t yet ail the city.

   And as usual, he has it all thought out: where the routes will run, where the stations should be located, and the size of the sales taxes that probably won’t pay for it all once it’s finished some decades hence. And to top all that off, some of those sales taxes will be diverted from the ones that are currently helping fund not enough bus service to make carless Kansas Citians (I hear they exist) truly mobile.

   If the past is any guide to the present, then, the voters in November will send yet another Chastain light-rail tax proposal down the tubes.

   As well they should, for there’s another group out there that’s taking a do-it-yourself approach to expanding rail transit, one that has a much better chance of laying the groundwork for a system that will benefit the entire Greater Kansas City region.

   The group that’s behind it is the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance (KCRTA), and for now, it’s focusing on something that actually can get done: namely, extending the 2.2-mile-long Main Street streetcar south to the Country Club Plaza and UMKC.

   This may not seem terribly ambitious, but it has the virtue of both building on the city’s own plans and drawing on proven support.

   “Chastain is dictating where the stops will go,” says David A. Johnson, vice chair of the KCRTA board. “We’re saying, ‘City, you already did a plan in 2014. We’re giving you a financing plan. You can figure out where and how to build it.’”

   The group is taking advantage of a provision in Missouri law that allows citizen groups to propose tax referenda for mass transit expansion, subject to petition requirements and a judge’s approval.

   “The intent of the legislation was to give regular people a chance to finance their own transportation projects, especially in the case where you don’t have city or state support,” Johnson says. 

   The KCRTA’s current petition-driven referendum proposal is an effort to do just that, and it came about after the group looked at the 2014 referendum results. Those results revealed a sharp split: East Side residents overwhelmingly rejected the plan to extend the taxing district along Linwood and Independence boulevards, while Midtown residents strongly backed the plan to take it farther south along Main Street. Since all three extensions were presented as part of a single package, the entire plan went down to defeat.

   So now the KCRTA is working to get the extension the people want built. It’s important to do this as a real proof-of-concept test for streetcars and light rail as essential elements in the Greater Kansas City transportation mix.

   The group is pushing this referendum now, he said, “to keep the streetcar line from being a 2-mile-long butt of a joke. It’s actually one of the most efficient light rail lines in the United States, but people still ask, ‘Why did you build it?’”

Extending the line to the Plaza and UMKC gives it a chance to function as a real commuter route instead of a circulator, and it has the added plus of having major activity hubs at both ends of the line.

The support residents up and down the Main Street corridor showed at the city-sponsored referendum in 2014 also suggests that there’s demand for something more and better than Main Street MAX currently offers in Midtown as well.

   The KCRTA effort also differs from the previous proposal in another respect: The board of the transportation development district (TDD) it calls for would be elected by those living in it. It would also absorb and replace the existing TDD created to build the downtown line, whose members are appointed by the city. Johnson acknowledged that this approach is “certainly not typical,” but noted that the “direct democracy” provisions in the state law encourage an approach like this.

   While this may seem like a well-off portion of the city getting its share while letting everyone else go hang, Johnson notes that Midtown is actually socioeconomically diverse and that the KCRTA also supports other initiatives to improve transit across the city and region, including the Prospect Avenue MAX line many East Side residents support. While both the city and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority remain committed to making it a reality, he noted that the city hasn’t yet figured out where its local match for the federal Small Starts grant it received for the line will come from, and missing out on the Smart Cities Challenge prize also means the city will have to look elsewhere for those additional funds, most likely to a bond issue next year.

   So given a somewhat constrained city treasury, an existing streetcar line that’s proved popular with residents and visitors, and a state law that allows citizen groups to fund their own transportation improvements, why not take advantage of the opportunity? If, as Johnson and the KCRTA board hope, it proves that the streetcar works as practical urban transportation, it may yet get over to the East Side — and sooner than anything Chastain might devise.

   A public hearing on the KCRTA’s proposal will take place at the Jackson County Courthouse on Sept. 15, after which a Jackson County Circuit Court judge will rule on whether it should be placed on the November general election ballot. If the judge rules in favor, once again there will be a clear choice between transit futures for Kansas City, and at least I hope the voters choose the one that might actually work in the here and now.

   For more information about the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance, visit

   Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine and a contributor to Next City. A native Kansas Citian, Smith graduated from The Pembroke Hill School in 1976 and Harvard University in 1982 before moving to Philadelphia, where he has lived for the past 34 years.