A few weeks ago, U-News sat down with Sherry DeJanes, a local attorney and founder of SMART KC, a group opposed to the streetcar expansion.
On the opposite side, as one of the project’s supporters, David Johnson serves on the board of the Regional Transit Alliance, the group that put forth the vote on the newly formed Transportation Development District (TDD). U-News spoke with Johnson about the project’s future and its impact on Kansas City.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? How did you become involved with the streetcar expansion and what is your role in this project?
A: I’m a resident in the Crossroads. I own a home in the current Transportation Development District that funded the downtown streetcar segment. I worked on that election, as well in 2012. There was a pair of elections to authorize that district. The project was eventually constructed with some additional federal grants and is now up and running and very successful from a ridership and economic development perspective.
There was a subsequent expansion study in 2014 that was backed by the city. It had three expansion corridors, Main St. south, Linwood Blvd. to the west and Independence Avenue to the east. That failed by sixty-forty margin. Our group took a look at the voting results from that election and found that there was strong voter support along the Main St. corridor, which is also the corridor that is expected to score the best when it comes to ridership and federal funding. So, we drew a new special district that was only around the Main St. extension and raised money in the private sector to pay all the legal costs and go through the court process to get the district in front of voters.
That process concluded in August of this year with the formation votes for that new district. So, the district is a legal entity now. It is a political subdivision in the state and will start generating revenue once the project is substantially funded. Generally speaking, that means that that it will need to receive the federal grants that are anticipated at upwards of a hundred million dollars before the revenue sources can be enabled.
Q: Why do you think a streetcar expansion is important?
A: First and foremost, the river to plaza corridor has been targeted for fixed rail investment for forty years…There’s been lots of failed attempts citywide and as part of other efforts to get something funded and study after study has concluded that this is the right corridor to invest in. That’s really what’s driving this.
Q: In August, voters approved a measure that said the city can’t promote the expansion project without a citywide vote. In that same election, voters approved the formation of the TDD. How do these two votes come into play with each other? What does that ballot measure mean for the expansion project?
A: They were both ballot measures put forth by citizens. People collected signatures, and the city is now required to place very ballot initiative on the ballot whether they think it is illegal or unconstitutional or not. About a year ago, the city attorney at the time told these petitioners that there are serious legal problems with the ballot language. They elected not to change any of the language.
First, city staff would be liable for a thousand dollar fine per occurrence of trying to aid or assist the streetcar expansion. That’s problematic on all kinds of levels, but I think most people would assume it’s pretty illegal. The ability to plan is a charter function of the city of Kansas City granted by the state. And the petition initiative process cannot restrain charter functions. Our opinion is that the ballot measure restricting the city from supporting the streetcar expansion without citywide approval is illegal and should be repealed. But that’s for city council to decide, it’s totally there purview. We have no ability to do anything with that. However, the streetcar authority-which is taking the lead on streetcar expansion-is not bound by petition initiatives or restrictions in question one. They’re advancing all the planning work that is required to get the project federal funds. That work is carrying on unabated.
Q: One of the criticisms of the streetcar expansion has to do with the legality of the special mail-in election that resulted in the TDD’s formation. SMART KC, a local organization opposed to the project, filed a lawsuit claiming that election was unconstitutional. What is your take on that?
A: I can’t really comment on that litigation.
Q: If the courts were to decide that the election was unconstitutional, what would that mean for the expansion project?
A: It is very rare for an election to be overturned. I can tell you that. You’ll be hard pressed to find one in all of the state’s history. Especially when it comes to an election where the process itself is not contested. The plaintiffs have been quite clear that they don’t think that we didn’t follow the statutes. They’re making the unconstitutional claim on the statute itself, which is why they’ve decided to name the secretary of state as one of the defendants.
Something worth noting is that, if this were found to be unconstitutional, there are other elections that are conducted this way. It would call into question the legality of all of those special districts, and there are hundreds of them.
Q: What are the next steps to getting this project up and running?
A: There’s a lot of work to be done. It will be five to six years before anyone steps on a streetcar on Main street south of Union Station.
Right now, we’re still in the planning process. There should be a public component to that starting very soon, where the public will weigh in on some of the questions that need to be answered about more fine details. The big question outstanding right now is which lane of Main St. the tracks will be laid in. That wasn’t much of a question downtown, because there aren’t many lanes on Main St. north of Union Station. Main St. is six to seven lanes wide all the way from Pershing down to Cleaver. That’s one of the biggest looming questions that front and center.
Also, the third and final election for the special district for the southern extension is on tab for 2018. We’re anticipating that to pass based on the prior two elections showing strong support for the project. Then the project, from a legal perspective, will be complete. Then it will just be technical and construction work.
Q: Once the streetcar extends to UMKC, what kind of impact might that have on the campus?
A: I think everyone acknowledges that the UMKC campus has a parking problem. We’ve certainly seen, where I live in the Crossroads and in River Market, more people are circulating and coming to these areas. We’re seeing more cars, but we’re also seeing way more people than cars. People will have a choice, if they don’t want to deal with the parking on campus, to just hop on the streetcar. That’s the important thing about keeping it free. Even though there are paid spots on campus, a lot of people end up parking for free. We’ve got to level the playing field and make transit attractive. That’s why I continue to support keeping the fair fee.
Q: Is there anything else you want to say about the streetcar expansion project?
A: The ridership and the free fair model has been a really successful one. I’m very proud of having been involved in the design process and the selection of not charging a fair. It is the most successful streetcar project in the country on a passenger per route mile basis. It has certainly exceeded everyone’s expectations, including my own.
The economic development was expected, but I don’t think they expected over two billion dollars of additional public and private investment in the special district boundary in such a short period of time. It’s just been the amazing, the response from the market place. I think the opponents like to paint this as something draining on the city’s budget, when that is absolutely not true.
We definitely have the support of the UMKC administration and the curators. The university itself definitely wants it to happen. I think what we’re seeing is a couple of homeowners who don’t want to pay the special assessment, and happen to be lawyers, trying to prevent progress.