Riders on Kansas City's proposed downtown streetcar circulator should be able to hop on -- at no charge -- as often as they like once the new transit system starts to roll.
A no-fare policy approved Wednesday aims to crank up enthusiasm and usage.
"If it's free, everybody will try it," Streetcar Authority Chairman Tom Trabon said. "I think (having) no fare gets people excited."
The new streetcar district governing board voted unanimously Wednesday to go without fares indefinitely on a service set to open to the public as early as 2015, assuming downtown voters approve a tax plan later this year.
But authority members agreed the streetcar operator will have to make sure rowdy teens, vagrants and loiterers don't abuse the free fare and ruin the ride.
Kansas City's streetcar system is planned to run between the River Market and Union Station, primarily on Main Street. It is expected to cost about $93 million to build and $2.8 million annually to operate.
Supporters envision it will connect residents, downtown workers, suburbanites, tourists and others to the Sprint Center, bars and restaurants in River Market and the Power & Light District, Bartle Hall, hotels and downtown's other amenities.
They also hope it will lure thousands more residents downtown and bolster the area's commercial and residential density.
Conversely, critics see it as an expensive and unneeded boondoggle.
The Streetcar Authority hopes to quickly pick an operator, banking that fast-tracking the project will help Kansas City catch up with other metro areas that already boast fixed-rail transit.
Members of the public need to give thumbs up one more time, or all the planning collapses.
In a mail-in election this fall, downtown voters will decide on new sales and property tax increases within a special taxing district to help pay the local share of the streetcar system. Ballots will be mailed out Oct. 30 and are due back Dec. 11, and the election board is expected to have results Dec. 12.
Because downtown voters overwhelmingly approved creation of the streetcar taxing district earlier this summer, city officials are confident the actual tax increases will also pass, and they are moving forward with their plans.
The sales tax in the downtown district would go up by 1 cent, while residential properties would have a special assessment of 70 cents per $100 of assessed valuation and commercial properties would have a special assessment of 48 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Wednesday's decision on the fares followed a 90-minute discussion on the merits of whether or not to charge riders.
City Councilman Russ Johnson, a member of the authority, worried that if people don't have to pay anything, some teenagers or vagrants will ride the trains endlessly and cause problems. He didn't want the trains to become a haven for people "to goof off all day."
Johnson said that in San Diego, people must purchase a ticket before they can gain access to transit stations, which helps weed out loiterers.
"Security is always brought up in any new thing the city does in the urban environment," Johnson said after the meeting. He said Kansas City officials and the streetcar operator will have to work closely with the Police Department to make sure people don't abuse the no-fare policy.
Authority member David Johnson said there are better ways to address the security concerns. He praised the "yellow-jacket" employees of the Downtown Council's community improvement district for dramatically improving downtown's atmosphere of safety and security, and suggested a similar approach could be used with the streetcars.
Johnson cited Portland, Ore., and Salt Lake City as examples of cities that have provided fare-free streetcar zones. And he said a free bus on Denver's 16th Street Mall was a big "catalyst for Denver's transit renaissance."
In a telephone interview, Daria Serna, a spokeswoman for Denver's Regional Transportation District, said that city's 16th Street Mall shuttle doesn't have a big problem with all-day loiterers, even though it's free.
"People pretty much get on and off," Serna said, adding that all passengers are asked to exit at each end of the route. The operator of the Kansas City streetcar could use a similar strategy at the Union Station end point to the route.
Serna said the mall shuttle has a good camera system. People know they are being watched. The transit district's security guards and police also help keep the peace.
Most Streetcar Authority members said Wednesday they thought fares could discourage some people from taking a short trip on the streetcar, while eliminating fares, at least initially, would help galvanize many more people to hop aboard.
They agreed the fare machines can be added later if needed. And they didn't think the budget impact from eliminating fares would be severe.
The initial streetcar plan assumed people would pay $1 per ride, and estimated about 2,900 riders per day. The budget assumed fares would generate about $500,000 in revenue each year, or about 50 cents per ride, taking into account passes or other discounts.
But there are also costs to charging fares, including about $1 million to install ticket machines at the various stops and about $250,000 per year to employ fare inspectors and deal with administration and cash handling.
The Kansas City Streetcar Authority initially considered committing to no fares for a year or two, but then opted to leave the time-frame open ended.
"We need for this thing to succeed," Trabon said