The Kansas City Streetcar Expansion: Policy Breakdown
Voters in a section of Kansas City will go to the polls on Aug. 5 to decide whether the city should form a Transportation Development District (TDD) to raise money for a $471 million streetcar project. The arguments for and against this project are as follows:
- Proponents: Streetcars drive development. Cities that have built streetcars have seen development far in excess of project costs. Kansas City has seen new development around the as yet unfinished initial streetcar line. Developers and millennials are attracted to the fixed transportation infrastructure, creating more economic dynamism.
o Opponents: The idea that streetcars create development is tenuous at best. Streetcars are nearly always coupled with subsidies to developers and corridor improvements that may be the prime factor for any development. In addition, that subsidized development might have been diverted from other areas in the city. Many examples of streetcar development in Kansas City are, on closer inspection, fatuous. For instance, a company (whose owner publicly supports the streetcar) moved from one part of the proposed streetcar line to another two blocks away, and this was counted as streetcar-induced development.
- Proponents: Streetcars will increase transit usage. Most people prefer rail and fixed transit to buses, so the streetcar can expect high ridership. In addition, the streetcar’s improvements to the overall transit network will increase transit ridership across the city.
o Opponents: Streetcars are among the most wasteful methods of boosting transit ridership. As their capacity and speed is not significantly better than a bus, even popular streetcar lines do not carry many riders. Furthermore, as the Kansas City streetcar will run on routes that multiple bus routes already serve, we can expect a good deal of streetcar riders to be former bus users, not new transit riders. The Kansas City streetcar will duplicate, rather than complement, the existing bus network. This means minimal system-wide mobility improvements, and hence, little new system-wide ridership. With a cost of more than $470 million (which could pay for more than 100 buses), the transportation benefits of streetcars are not worth the cost.
- Proponents: More transit spending means more jobs.
o Opponents: Kansas City needs new jobs that will enrich the city, not jobs that act as a drain on the public purse and the taxpayer.
Put simply, streetcar proponents argue that streetcars drive economic development, improve public transportation, and create jobs, while opponents counter that development claims are unproven, that the costs of the project far outweigh any transportation benefits, and Kansas City needs jobs that bring money into, not extract money from, the city.