A Streetcar Too Far: Vanity Rail Lines Are a Waste of Kansas City Tax Dollars
The first line of The Associated Press article said it all: “The trolley
is making a comeback.”
Sure, the article conceded, trolleys had been falling out of favor
with the public for years, but “[n]ow gas prices, air pollutants and
spiffy promotional campaigns are making people more aware of the
trolley as mass transit.” One trolley company even said that at least
10 cities were “studying or planning or requesting funding for new
light rail vehicles.” On that list: Kansas City.
Sounds like trolleys are the fresh, happening thing these days when
it comes to municipal development, except for one important thing:
The article quoted here is from 1975. As long-time residents can tell
you, Kansas City does not have a streetcar today, and it’s hard to
argue that streetcars made a substantive “comeback” in the 1970s,
But will Kansas City soon bring streetcars back to its Main Street?
Maybe, if the city has its way. Last month, the Parking and
Transportation Commission and the Kansas City Council approved
a plan to install $100 million worth of trolley lines following a 2-
mile route running from the River Market to Crown Center.
That’s $50 million per mile; a ludicrous expense, and that’s in the
context of a city that has seen its share of ridiculous rail proposals
over the years.
Indeed, the idea of bringing rail lines in one form or another has
been kicked around exhaustively for the last two decades, and there
are, in fact, two competing passenger rail proposals in Kansas City:
the Main Street trolley and, no joke, yet another $1 billion-plus rail
project that perpetual rail proponent Clay Chastain has proposed.
But even Chastain, the name and face behind KC rail for years, won’t
rally behind a trolley project.
“You’re not going to take a streetcar to the airport,” Chastain told The
Kansas City Star. “This is not the major response we need to build a
world-class transit system.”
When Clay Chastain says your project is impractical, it just might be
Missing in all of the streetcar talk is any substantive discussion of why
these projects are necessary, or even desirable, especially in today’s
economic circumstances. Kansas City and other cities removed their
trolley lines decades ago in no small part because trolleys were
impractical for their times, and the impracticality problems of trolleys
remain to this day. The Parking and Transportation Commission’s own
report puts the expense of trolleys at five times what a comparable bus
costs, and that’s assuming there are no cost overruns in the trolley line’s
But let’s break this municipal issue down to its most salient and important
question: Is a trolley project really the best use of already-depleted
taxpayer dollars? The money Kansas City would spend on these projects
couldn’t be spent on other pressing municipal matters. What would the
city forgo if it rebuilds rail lines that were torn out long ago?
In this economy, Kansas City needs… trolleys?
Patrick Ishmael is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which
promotes market solutions for Missouri Public Policy.