The Overly Optimistic Estimates For The Kansas City Streetcar
The latest plan for the streetcar extension in Kansas City has 7.6 miles of routes at a cost of $472 million. We have written before that for the same cost, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) could afford to massively expand its bus service. But we have not addressed the very optimistic ridership projections in the new Transportation Development District (TDD) proposal.
According to the NextRailKC website, the 7.6 miles of streetcar could achieve anywhere from 13,700 to 23,200 passengers per weekday, based on modeling they have performed. With 7.6 miles of track, that is between 1,800 and 3,000 weekday passengers per mile. While models can be useful, at some point, someone should have checked what streetcars achieve in other cities.
Simply put, these ridership estimates are unrealistic. The high-end estimate would make it the most successful streetcar line in America according to ridership. It would have more riders than Seattle, the busiest streetcar line in America, which is only a mile long and is right in the heart of downtown Seattle. Do they really think that is going to happen?
If Kansas City achieved its low estimate of 13,700 riders per day, it would be performing about as well as Portland’s streetcar. Portland’s system is considered highly successful in terms of riders, but there are reasons to think that Kansas City will have difficulty reaching Portland’s ridership levels. Portland has offered streetcar users low fares (originally there were free zones and the price eventually increased to $1) and used significant subsidies for transit-oriented development. In addition, rail lines in Portland run through much denser population centers than what is proposed in Kansas City.
Of course, other streetcars see much less ridership than Portland’s and Seattle’s. Streetcars in Memphis, Tenn., and Kenosha, Wis., each had ridership below 1,000 daily passengers per mile. Why do Kansas City planners see no possibility of their streetcar performing at that level?
It is possible that the Kansas streetcar will be wildly successful, and garner 23,200 passengers on an average weekday. But that is not something that is fair to sell to the public as a likely occurrence. The lower estimate, 13,700, is a more realistic maximum estimate given the performance of existing streetcar operations in other cities.