The grousing started just moments after Kansas City learned Tuesday that it had lost out on that $25 million federal streetcar grant.
Some were quick to blame Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, saying he just didn’t have enough pull in D.C. Others suggested that such a defeat never would have happened if former Missouri Sen. Kit Bond was still around.
Time for a reality check.
First, Kansas City received millions out of the same pot of money a couple of years back for its Green Impact Zone — a project Cleaver spearheaded. At the time, Kansas City got the entire $26.2 million in transportation money it requested.
The chance that Kansas City could then turn around and land another grant from the same kitty simply wasn’t realistic. Not when federal officials received 704 grant applications totaling $10.2 billion — and awarded less than $500 million of that amount.
That wasn’t our only problem. Kansas City still doesn’t have a funding mechanism in place for the system. Elections to determine that question are underway. That hurt.
Councilman Russ Johnson, who is leading the transit drive, told me he wasn’t surprised we struck out.
“I knew,” he said, “it was going to be pretty competitive.”
Let’s have a little introspection. This city remains deeply divided over public transit. Citizens still disagree over whether a $100 million starter streetcar system is needed. Missing is an enthusiastic consensus that says streetcars are our chief priority.
Things are tough enough when Kansas City also is facing massive, multi-billion-dollar sewer repairs. Mayor Sly James is pushing hundreds of million in infrastructure updates. And other leaders are clamoring for a downtown convention hotel that will require city backing.
Some still question the proposed streetcar route, which will cover just two dozen blocks — from the River Market to Crown Center — and not reach into the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Federal officials know about that lack of consensus. They know Kansas City has an issue when it comes to density and whether we can adequately support a streetcar system. They know the funding stream still isn’t locked in place.
Now even an enthusiast such as Johnson is suggesting that we may have to tap the brakes. He questions whether the city can continue without Washington’s help, which may prove elusive. Experts don’t know when — or whether — another round of streetcar might be is in the offing. The federal pot is shrinking these days.
“I’m not convinced we can do it without federal funds,” Johnson said.
Is this really our priority above all else? Until we can answer that question with an unequivocal, resounding “yes!” mass transit will continue to be the nut Kansas City can’t crack.
To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.