Beware The Jabberwock (And Downtown Streetcars)
In an iconic episode of the TV cartoon The Simpsons, a Music Man-type salesman convinces the town of Springfield to build a monorail. When one of the characters, Marge, laments that “Main Street’s still all cracked and broken,” her son Bart retorts, “sorry Mom, the mob has spoken.”
Back in the real world, Kansas City is caught up in a questionable transportation project of its own – joining the rush to become the latest U.S. city to build a super-expensive, super-trendy downtown streetcar system.
With an initial 2.2-mile line already under construction, the Kansas City City Council has unanimously approved the creation of a Transportation Development District (TDD) to expand the streetcar line to almost 10 miles. Kansas City residents need to consider the project’s enormous costs and questionable benefits of the proposed expansion.
Streetcars are an extremely costly form of public transportation. The Kansas City TDD aims to spend $472 million to build 7.6 miles of streetcar routes in Kansas City. That is a mind-boggling $62 million per mile to build a system that (as one critic puts it) “offers little more than a way to move downtown workers from their offices to lunch.” For no more money, Kansas City could add 100 buses to its existing fleet of 250 buses and greatly increase bus service throughout the entire Kansas City metro area.
It is always fun to spend other people’s money and supporters of streetcar expansion expect to raise more than half of the needed funds – or more than $250 million – from the federal government. That still leaves a substantial sum of money that will have to be raised in additional taxes on residents and businesses inside – and, it is important to note, outside – the transportation district.
People within the TDD will have the opportunity to vote in a special election (at a time yet to be determined) on whether to accept higher sales or property tax levies to support the project. Taxpayers outside the district will not get a chance to vote, but they will be on the hook as a result of the fact that the city of the Kansas City is a major property owner within the TDD. As such, the city will shoulder a significant portion of the tax load – and it will pass that burden along to at-large Kansas City residents through higher taxes or reduced services.
The whole project begs the question: What possible advantage can there be to building a new streetcar system, given the much lower costs and the much greater range and flexibility that buses provide?
NextRailKC and others describe the huge expense and extreme inflexibility of streetcar systems as a hidden asset – signifying a valuable long-term commitment on the part of government to provide reliable public transportation within a designated area. According to this argument, developers and investors see this commitment, and so they are inspired to build around streetcar routes.
As a favorite example, streetcar supporters point to Portland’s celebrated Pearl District. There, it is argued, is the proof that streetcars can spearhead incredible urban development that justifies the streetcar system’s out-sized expense. However, even streetcar proponents admit that Portland’s streetcar was only a part of a large-scale investment plan, involving more than $400 million in tax subsidies that supported growth in streetcar corridors.
Kansas City residents would be wise to reject Bart’s advice and listen to his mother’s more mature assessment. Better to improve what is already there – roads and existing public transportation – than to join the rush to be part of the latest urban planning fad.
Joseph Miller is a policy researcher at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.