Kansas City Streetcar Failing by Its Own Standards
On July 12, the Kansas City Downtown Council posted an item on its blog in which the Streetcar Authority marketing director was quoted as saying,
“Streetcars do more than simply improve mobility,” said Donna Mandelbaum, marketing officer for the KC Streetcar. “In Kansas City, the entire community is looking to the Downtown Streetcar to fuel economic growth by promoting development, raising property values, attracting businesses and residents, and helping to redefine our city, streetcars benefit everyone.”
Let’s examine these claims one by one:
- Streetcars do more than simply improve mobility—Actually, streetcars do not improve mobility at all; they certainly do not take cars off the street. They increase congestion and are many times the cost of bus rapid transit.
- In Kansas City, the entire community is looking to the Downtown Streetcar—Recall that the existing streetcar Transportation Development District was approved by a few hundred votes of people within the politically designed district through a mail-in election. Whenever the “entire community” votes on the streetcar, it is defeated.
- Fuel economic growth by promoting development—This is a canard that streetcar aficionados like to push, but there is no research to demonstrate this from anywhere in the world. What really happens, and even the folks in Portland admit this, is that cities lard all sorts of other economic incentives such as TIF and property tax abatements along the streetcar lines, which then drives property development. Even then the claims of economic development are unsupported.
- Raising property values—This is demonstrably untrue. In the streetcar TDD, not only is property value lower than it was in 2012, the recent increase in value is smaller than the increase in all of Jackson County.
- Attracting businesses and residents—As discussed above, claims of a renaissance are spurious. Businesses may move into the streetcar district, but research shows that often they either would have moved there anyway, or that the subsidy only moved the project a short distance from where they would have already developed. As for residents, recent research indicated that Kansas City’s downtown area has seen a 5.3% decline in millennials from 2009 to 2014.
- Helping redefine our city—This is so vague as to be impossible to evaluate. But certainly the high streetcar expenditure as well as subsidies downtown have helped to hollow out the city’s tax base. As a result the city must borrow money to provide basic services.
What Kansas City did was spend $51 million per mile to build a streetcar. It’s neat to ride, and ridership is higher than predicted for now. But then that was true elsewhere before ridership numbers tanked. Voters may decide that spending hundreds of millions more on an expansion is a good idea, but it certainly isn’t because the streetcar is driving development, improving transit, or attracting business and residents.