The Main Street Trolley: A Slow Motion Train Wreck
If City Hall has its way, Kansas City will have a $100 million streetcar on Main Street in the not-too-distant future, but fiscal discipline and good sense should bring the project to a full stop.
Earlier this month, the Kansas City Council unanimously approved legislation that would establish a special trolley zone following a proposed streetcar route along Main. New sales and property taxes in the new district would fund the majority of the trolley project. People living in the district will likely vote on those proposed taxes, but residents will not necessarily be the ones bearing the brunt of that tax burden, at least not directly.
Rather, businesses and property owners, many of whom who do not live in the area where their businesses are located, would pay the price. Crown Center Redevelopment President Bill Lucas, whose property sits at the southern-most edge of the proposed line, cautioned that if built as planned, the streetcar’s tax proposal would raise hotel taxes in the district to the second-highest rate in the country. The Kansas City Star’s Yael Abouhalkah noted just last week that Kansas City’s tax burden and debt servicing obligations are among the worst in the region. Is a Main Street train worth digging those holes deeper?
Moreover, if hotel taxes spike, as Lucas suggests, it would be an ironic, albeit not altogether unexpected, twist for a political class captivated by serial centralized development plans. Early last year, city officials pushed the idea of building a new convention center hotel to help link the languishing Bartle Hall to the languishing Power & Light District, thereby driving up consumer traffic for the trio. At the time, I called the proposal Kansas City’s “Hotel California” – an unnecessary fiscal boondoggle that, if built, taxpayers would not soon escape. Why would the city pursue a trolley project funded with a tax that could make the city’s hotel project even less competitive, not to mention hurt the hotels that already serve the downtown area?
But even if the trolley project is taken only on its own merits, the prospects and track record for a streetcar in Kansas City are decidedly poor. Last month, we found out that another city-subsidized entertainment-oriented transit line – the KC Strip – which serves many of the same areas that the trolley would serve, fell behind on its loan payments due to lack of ridership.
Appropriately, the Strip’s buses are painted like trolleys.
A $100 million plan that local businesses do not want to pay for? A $100 million plan that would spike hotel taxes and could undermine a proposed city-backed hotel building project meant to link an underused city-owned convention center to an underused city-subsidized entertainment complex? A $100 million plan that in large part replicates a cheaper transit option, that the city subsidizes, which is already failing?
What could possibly go wrong?
When the people who presumably stand to benefit from the trolley do not want to pay for it, no one should be paying for it. Not only is the city out of sync with the people who would be paying the proposed taxes; it is out of sync with even its own projects and development objectives.
The trolley is just the latest big idea in a long line of irresponsible municipal projects that city officials have proposed, and it may end up being the last straw for a go-go city-directed development culture that has hemorrhaged taxpayer money for years. Stop the train. We want to get off.
Patrick Ishmael is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.