Transit Action Network (TAN)

Advocates for Improved and Expanded Transit in the Kansas City Region.

Streetcar Study Off to Fast Start

Posted by Transit Action Network on April 20, 2011

A Downtown Streetcar “Alternatives Analysis” (AA) study is on a fast track to completion, according to Charlie Hales, project manager for lead consultant HDR.  That’s our conclusion based on Hales’ presentation to the Kansas City Parking and Transportation Commission today.  The Commission, chaired by Councilwoman Jan Marcason will be the “primary sounding board” guiding the study.

Hales, who has had extensive rail transit experience in Portland and other cities, said though the federal funding situation is uncertain, the best way to get such funding is to have a plan ready when the next money becomes available.

The study timetable is ambitious:
– June – Statement of purpose and need, plus identification of initial alternatives.
– August – Alternatives evaluation and financing options.
– September – Draft of a Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) report.
– November – Formal recommendation of a single Locally Preferred Alternative.

The FTA has awarded $400 million in grants for streetcar projects in the past 15 months through the TIGER and “Urban Circulator” programs, Hales said, and USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood really likes streetcar projects.  Getting the current study done will enable Kansas City to be “nimble” in applying for FTA “new starts” or “small starts” money, or other federal money that may become available.  Some transportation funding, for example, has recently been turned back by other grantees, and that money — even high-speed rail money — could conceivably be redirected to a streetcar project such as ours.

The Downtown Streetcar study will follow the FTA’s formal process, which requires consideration of reasonable options for both route and mode, but will seek a so-called “categorical exclusion” (a category of project considered not to have major environmental impacts) to simplify the “environmental screen” required in the FTA process.  Issues such as event-related street closures (e.g., at Sprint Arena and Crown Center), utility location requirements, the strength of bridges over the freeways, and where to locate a maintenance facility are among those to be addressed in the study.  Other factors include ridership forecasts (estimates based on travel demand models as well as “off-model” considerations) and financing options.

Hales noted that the study will build on a number of recent and ongoing local studies, including the Greater Downtown Area Plan, KCATA’s Comprehensive Service Analysis, the region’s Urban Corridors Study, and the Grand Boulevard Vision, plus all of the light rail planning work that’s been done in past years.  The streetcar study will be coordinated with the Commuter Corridors study (not yet underway), which will consider commuter rail in two major corridors.

Keeping the project manageable is important, too.  When projects fail, Hales said, it’s not for engineering reasons.  Rather, it’s for political reasons.  Thus, every effort will be made to keep all stakeholders involved, to limit expectations, and to avoid a key mistake of past Kansas City rail studies, letting the scope of the project expand.  Holding the project to just two miles gives it the highest likelihood of success, based on past voter response.  (It’s widely expected that funding for this project would come largely from within the streetcar corridor, and thus a citywide vote would not be required.)  This also keeps it small enough that the city might be able to finance it without federal assistance, should that become necessary.

KCATA General Manager Mark Huffer noted that a bill has been introduced in the Missouri Senate that would allow a Transportation Development District (TDD) to be set up specifically for transit, and that would simplify the makeup of the TDD’s governing body.  That bill (which might not be critical) might or might not get through the General Assembly this year.

Assistant City Manager Sherri McIntyre will oversee the project for the City.  She said she looks forward to guiding the study to completion and then getting the project built.

Said Chairman Marcason: “I’m the most optimistic that I’ve ever been (about getting a rail transit project done).”

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