Kansas City Mayor Sly James is starting the new year pushing hard for a downtown streetcar plan, traveling to Washington this week to lobby top federal officials and winning early support Thursday from a key local constituency, the Downtown Council.
A delegation led by James met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and several of his key aides Tuesday and returned optimistic about Kansas City's prospects for obtaining $25 million in federal aid for what's estimated as a $100 million starter project.
"The answer wasn't verbal, but I think there's a certain amount of comfort to be taken that we met with him and five of his undersecretaries, and they already knew about the plan," James said.
"They're on board with the concept. It's up to us to show we have a plan."
A spokesman for LaHood said the department didn't comment on private meetings.
To drum up solid local support for the remaining $75 million required, the mayor and other streetcar advocates briefed the Downtown Council board about a proposed timetable and financing plan that, if successful, could have a 2-mile streetcar route linking Crown Center with the River Market in operation by spring 2015.
Support from the Downtown Council, an organization of property and business owners, is critical because the local cost as currently envisioned would be borne primarily by downtown property owners. City officials already have decided not to seek a citywide vote on the proposal.
The current plan calls for establishing a transportation development district, a political subdivision that would encompass the River Market, central business district, Crossroads Arts District and Crown Center areas.
Business property owners within the district would have their property taxes raised by 52 cents and residential owners 70 cents per $100 of assessed value, and a 1-cent added sales tax would be charged. It would cost the owner of a $1 million commercial property $1,664 more a year and the owner of a $200,000 residence $267 more annually.
A tax of $182.50 per parking space also would be assessed annually on surface commercial pay lots.
The city would tax municipally owned property in the district at a rate of $1.04 per $100 of assessed value, generating about $820,000 annually. The city also would back the $83 million bond required to build the project.
Without the city's credit, interest rates would rise from 5.3 percent to 7.2 percent, adding millions to the cost, said attorney Doug Stone, who's advising the city on the plan.
Though not specifically backing the current financing plan, the Downtown Council did agree the city should continue a streetcar feasibility study reviewing the financing plan, budget and proposed route on Main Street.
James said it was critical for the city to push hard this year for the federal aid and noted that LaHood, who has a strong record of backing streetcar initiatives nationwide, planned to leave the Obama administration by the end of this term.
"After LaHood leaves office, all bets are off," the mayor said.
Should the city fail to get the $25 million federal grant this year, James predicted the timetable for implementing a streetcar line would be shoved back 18 months.
Kansas City Councilman Russ Johnson, chairman of the council's Transportation Committee, laid out a proposed schedule that calls for an election this June to establish the transportation development district. It would require the approval of the majority of voters living in its borders.
July is shaping up to be a pivotal month. By then, the city will know whether it's got the federal aid required and the transportation district established. If those goals are reached, construction bids would be obtained by next January, bonds issued in March 2013, and construction completed by April 2015.
In response to questions from the Downtown Council board, James did say he was open to allowing free ridership on the streetcar to people already paying taxes in the proposed transportation development district.
He also said the streetcar line eventually could be extended to the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus to allow it to be connected with a proposed downtown campus of the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance.
James repeated his assertion that the current downtown streetcar proposal was the most viable and do-able rail transit idea to be brought forward in the city after years of repeated failures to build a costlier light-rail system.
"If we don't do it," he told the Downtown Council, "do me a favor: Let's stop talking about it."