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Is the downtown streetcar a development engine or a luxury vehicle?

Assessing what exactly a streetcar means for Kansas City.



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Freemark continues: "The city with the most acclaim for its streetcar system is Portland. And it is a well-used system. But the trains operate at very slow speeds, often less than 10 miles per hour. When they're that slow, yes, you can attract some riders — people who are already downtown and want to hop on a train. But if you need to actually get somewhere, you want something that moves closer to 20 miles per hour. Since streetcars travel such short distances, at such slow speeds, it's often faster to simply walk to your destination."

But streetcar advocates aren't selling speed. For them, it's about growing business. In theory, a streetcar's fixed route provides businesses and property owners along its path with financial security.

"It is an economic-development tool. That's a fact," Johnson says. "All infrastructure is an economic tool. We put in sewer lines because we want people to build houses along them and create a tax base. It's the same with roads, police stations, fire stations, electricity. That's what infrastructure is. It's a foundation upon which you build economic activity and positive community impact."

Streetcars also look a lot like what urban theorist Richard Florida has written about over the past decade. In his best-selling books The Rise of the Creative Class, Cities and the Creative Class and The Flight of the Creative Class, Florida argues that in order to compete in a postindustrial economy, cities must attract a "creative class" — essentially tech entrepreneurs and bohemians. Lure those people, he says, and economic development will follow.

It's a sexy theory, and it has done plenty for Florida's personal economy, but there isn't a tremendous amount of empirical evidence to support it. This hasn't stopped cities across the country from trumpeting their arts scenes and building cool-looking things like streetcars in order to court these phantom creatives.

Sungyop Kim, an assistant professor of architecture, urban planning and design at the University of Missouri–Kansas City who is in favor of the KC proposal, backs the streetcar-as-stimulus argument. "We're talking about a changing culture," he says. "My research suggests that urban areas will continue to be viewed in a more favorable manner by new generations. There will be a higher concentration in urban areas and a significant increase in single-family households moving forward. Young working professionals tend to favor urban amenities like streetcars, and you're at an advantage as a city if you can offer them. You can't look at a streetcar as simply an economic decision. It's more of a political decision, based on the way culture in America is changing."

Of course, a streetcar line built with federal dollars is both an economic decision and a political one. The initial $1.5 billion TIGER investments were followed by rounds of grants: $600 million to transportation projects in 2010, $526 million in 2011 and $500 million in 2012. (Only some of this money was allocated to streetcar projects.) Given that stimulus flow, why not submit a streetcar proposal?

One reason: KC discovered earlier this year that the feds aren't as loose with big grants as those numbers suggest.

In 2009, the KCATA proposed a streetcar project that would cost $150 million and applied for a starter grant from TIGER to help pay for it. The answer was no.

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