Optimistically anticipating that their initial 2.2-mile downtown streetcar line will be a resounding success, Kansas City planners are proposing a Transportation Development District (TDD) to fund a $500 million streetcar system. This move is a blatant bid to get federal dollars to pay for an expensive and outmoded transportation device.
The Show-Me Institute policy staff has argued numerous times that streetcars do not improve mobility or connectivity. Development along streetcar lines is likely due more to tax incentives and other government investment that diverts development to the favored corridor. Even researchers who do not oppose streetcars point out that there is a lack of proper research on a streetcar line’s effect on regional development.
However, backers of the streetcar in Kansas City are not content to wait for real, rigorous studies on the success or failure of the streetcar fad before charging ahead. That is because streetcars are too expensive to build without matching federal dollars, at more than $50 million per mile, and federal policy can change quickly.
For instance, during the Bush administration, streetcars received little federal dollars. The department at the time focused on transit projects that were cost-effective and promoted congestion relief. But those guidelines changed under the Obama administration to favor “livability.” This change in policy, coupled with the stimulus, made billions of dollars available for streetcars in Kansas City and across the country, mostly in the form of TIGER and MAP-21 grants. However, the federal favor shown streetcars may not outlive the Obama administration, which would effectively kill any attempt to expand the streetcar in Kansas City. There is little wonder that there seems to be a race to lock up federal dollars.
Funding expensive and inefficient transportation options with money that falls from the sky is a short-cited policy for Kansas City. Federal grants may fund new transit infrastructure or increased capacity, but grants for repair and maintenance are rare. This means that the costs of the proposed $500 million streetcar system will continuously rise for Kansas City, likely beyond what the initial TDD will support.
And as the experience of Portland has shown, streetcar users will not be willing to pay anything like the full cost of their ride. After years of “free zones” (free streetcar rides in many areas of the city), tax breaks, corridor improvements, and high-density zoning, passengers using the existing streetcar lines declined following the imposition of a $1 fare. That fare, enough to deter ridership, only generates an insignificant percentage of the Portland streetcar’s $251 million capital or $8.2 operating budget, all for 7.3 miles of track.
If Kansas City cannot afford to build the streetcar without federal aid, it cannot afford a streetcar with federal aid either. If Kansas City residents approve the TDD and the proposed system is built, it virtually guarantees that, like Portland, everyone in the city, region, state, and country will pay for a mode of transportation whose sole purpose is to divert development to favored sections of downtown Kansas City.