Following the defeat of their expansion plan in Kansas City, today, streetcar proponents are wondering aloud about how to move their project forward – and fast. The mayor has vowed that the city’s leadership is not going to “let it go,” and supporters are considering how to form a new streetcar district that can win prompt voter support.
Clearly, one thing streetcar proponents do not want to do is wait to see the results of the initial streetcar line, but why the rush? Why do city officials think the streetcar expansion proposal is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”? Some streetcar proponents fear that the Republicans might win the presidency and stop giving money to transit, and at more than $50 million a mile, streetcar projects are just too expensive for cities to undertake without federal help. As one streetcar supporter put it, “Do you think President Ted Cruz would fund urban transit?”
The answer to that question is yes, actually, if history is any guide. Below is a chart of federal spending on capital improvements for transit, through two Republican and Democratic presidents.
While the Obama administration has increased support for transit, the George W. Bush administration was also a big spender. What’s more, a future Republican administration is unlikely to be catastrophic for transit funding, as almost 80 percent of funds come directly from a federal Mass Transit Account. This account will continue to provide a baseline of transit funding under any new administration.
What streetcar advocates really have to fear is not the defunding of urban transit, but the defunding of streetcars in favor of other forms of transit. Past administrations favored transit projects that reduced congestion or improved mobility, so streetcars received few federal dollars. The Obama administration’s desire to use transit projects to create “livable communities” has made federal streetcar funding possible.
But if the more than 10 planned streetcar projects are as successful as proponents hope – both in terms of development and boosting transit – the next administration (Team Red or Blue) would likely fund more streetcar projects. Only if the streetcars fail to meet expectations, given their massive cost, would federal money dry up for streetcars.
Perhaps it’s that possibility – that streetcars face a tough accounting in future– that has supporters in a rush. What’s certain is that federal transit funding is not going anywhere, and if streetcars are so great for urban areas, the money will be there if Kansas City ever decides to expand its streetcar line. And if streetcars turn out to be an urban planning fad and that funding disappears? Kansas City will be better off for its caution. When it comes to expanding the streetcar, Kansas City residents should feel free to emulate the streetcar and take it slow.