Despite losing out on a crucial $25 million federal grant, Kansas City Mayor Sly James and other city officials vowed Tuesday to press on with the downtown streetcar plan.
The rejection almost surely means the city will not complete the starter streetcar route within four years, as optimists had hoped. But that doesn't mean the project is dead, supporters said.
"We're not quitting," James said in an interview.
He said federal transportation officials had been impressed with Kansas City's grant application but that other cities are further along with their streetcar plans and already have their local funding in place.
Kansas City is still trying to get that local funding set up. In fact, a special mail-in election with 555 registered voters got underway Tuesday to approve creation of a downtown taxing district to support streetcars.
If approved, it would be a first step toward paying for the starter streetcar route, estimated at $100 million, from River Market to Crown Center.
City officials always knew it would be a long shot for them to receive the $25 million TIGER IV grant (short for Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery).
Competition for this particular grant program this year was incredibly fierce. Federal officials received 704 grant applications totaling $10.2 billion -- and awarded less than 4.9 percent, or $500 million, of that total.
The official announcement of the winners is not expected until Friday. A transportation department spokeswoman said Tuesday she could not comment on any of the recipients. But some of the winning cities began posting notices of their grants Tuesday afternoon, and James confirmed that he had been told Kansas City was not among the grant recipients.
Public Works Director Sherri McIntyre, who is the lead city staff person on the streetcar project, said she was disappointed Tuesday but not giving up.
"This is not stopping us," she said.
City officials had hoped that, with the grant, they might be able to keep to a very ambitious construction schedule, opening the starter streetcar route in Spring 2015. Now that schedule is likely pushed back by at least a year, McIntyre said.
McIntyre conceded that the future political climate is worrisome. City officials had hoped to win this grant because Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is a big supporter of streetcars and is close with members of Kansas City's congressional delegation. Getting generous federal transportation grants in the future may be increasingly difficult.
"The current administration is very supportive of rail transit," McIntyre said. "With the next election, you don't know where the House, Senate or president will stand on any of these issues."
The loss of the federal grant doesn't necessarily shift the entire cost to downtown property owners. McIntyre and others said the city will still aggressively pursue other sources of funding, such as environmental and infrastructure grants and tax credits, to alleviate the burden on taxpayers. But the loss of the TIGER IV grant means the search for alternative grants becomes even more urgent.
McIntyre said the city will be applying in the near future for other federal grants. One might provide up to $25 million, and another has the potential for $16 million, she said.
McIntyre added that the city and its engineering consultants are also looking at ways to reduce the cost of the streetcars below the rough estimate of $100 million, to further reduce the taxpayer burden.
David Johnson, a downtown resident and strong advocate for the streetcars, said loss of the grant makes it all the more imperative that voters approve a new downtown streetcar taxing district.
Johnson said Tuesday he remains very optimistic about that vote. Ballots went out Tuesday to 555 registered voters who properly applied with the Jackson County Circuit Court. Those ballots are due back July 31 and will determine whether the district is created.
If the district is approved, a subsequent election would be held later this year to establish the specific sales and property tax increases to help pay the cost of the streetcars.
Some voters are renters, but Johnson said more than half the voters participating in this first mail-in election are property owners who would be directly affected by the possible tax increases. He thinks many are very supportive of the streetcars, seeing the project as an asset and economic development tool downtown.
"People are still really motivated," he said. "I think the people still want to see it go forward."
One downtown property owner who definitely does not want to see the project move forward is Sue Burke, who owns Kansas City Air Filter in the River Market. She does not live downtown and so can't vote in the streetcar district election, but she's been an outspoken opponent of the streetcar plan.
Burke was "temporarily relieved" Tuesday to learn the city had not won the federal grant. She said she knows that news doesn't kill the project, but will delay it. And she questioned how many downtown voters will support new streetcar taxes, especially after they're asked to support increased taxes for parks and a huge sewer bond issue in a citywide election Aug. 7.
Burke said she wasn't surprised that Kansas City didn't get the grant, and she still worries about the project's tax impact on downtown property owners.
"It's expecting way too much money from such a narrow group of taxpayers, for little or no benefit," she said.