Downtown property owners could be asked to help pay for streetcar line

Downtown property owners could potentially be asked to pick up the cost of running a proposed streetcar line from Crown Center to the River Market.

The possibility of a new tax — either a sales or property tax — was raised this morning when Kansas City transportation planners outlined plans for a streetcar line for a Kansas City Council Committee.

The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority wants to go after federal stimulus funds to pay for a 2 1/2-mile streetcar line, which potentially could cost close to $100 million.

Streetcars look and operate like light rail, but generally they are less expensive, make more stops and run in mixed traffic.

They are operated in Seattle, Portland and Tacoma, Wash. More than 30 cities nationwide are planning streetcar routes.

Mark Huffer, the ATA’s general manager, said stimulus money could pay for the entire rail line without having to go to voters to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in local funding. However, lining up operating costs could be a tricky issue.

Huffer said he would prefer not to see sales taxes that are currently earmarked for buses go for streetcars, noting that declining sales tax revenues led to cuts in bus service this year.

He mentioned the possibility of creating a so-called transportation development district surrounding the route where new taxes could be collected from affected property owners and funneled into streetcars.

He also discussed the possibility of selling naming rights and sponsorships as a way to raise money for the project.

Huffer presented the streetcar plan this morning to the Downtown Council.

Bill Dietrich, the council's president and chief executive, said the organization is generally supportive of improving transit.

He said the council plans to look at how transportation districts have been used in other cities like Portland to fund streetcars. He also said the council membership would be surveyed and the results would be turned back to the ATA before the Sept. 15 deadline for submitting the application.

"We're more than willing to look into the possibility," Dietrich said this afternoon.

Funding operations will be important because the competition for the stimulus money is expected to be fierce.

There’s a $1.5 billion pot of discretionary money for transportation that hasn’t been doled out yet. It’s expected that billion of dollars in projects will be requested for any number of projects.

Possible competition includes a likely $200 million application from the Missouri highway department to build truck-only lanes on parts of I-70. The Kansas transportation department is expected to seek $50 million in stimulus money to jump-start the massive freight center that BNSF Railway wants to build near Gardner in Johnson County.

Huffer said there is a lot more work to be done on the streetcar proposal before the Sept. 15 deadline for submitting the application. Additional work would include refining the cost — roughly $40 million a mile — and an environmental assessment.

Council members expressed some concern about why the streetcar route wasn’t part of another plan presented this morning that calls for creating a network of bus rapid transit routes throughout the region.

Transportation planners from the Mid-America Regional Council told the council committee about their idea for seeking federal stimulus funds to build four bus routes similar to the MAX line in Kansas City.

There are already bus rapid transit routes being planning for Metcalf Avenue and Shawnee Mission Parkway in Johnson County and another for State Avenue in Kansas City, Kan. Those two bus lines could cost more than $50 million.

Committee Chairman Russ Johnson wondered why the MARC plan didn’t have lines that converged downtown. And Councilwoman Jan Marcason speculated that MARC plan might be bolstered if it incorporated the streetcars line.

Officials from MARC said they would consider the idea, but it would need further evaluation.