The recent trend in streetcar reintroductions and expansions across the US have hit a political speed bump. Most recently, on August 5, voters in Kansas City, Missouri, turned down a proposal to expand the funding mechanism for the city’s downtown streetcar starter line to partially fund a $472 million, 7.6-mile expansion project. Backers of the plan hoped that generating approximately half of the total funds would position the City for federal funding. At a news conference after the defeat of the measure, Mayor Sly James did not concede. “This issue is not over by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.
Kansas City is not alone. Earlier this summer, the San Antonio City Council scuttled plans by VIA Metropolitan Transit, the region’s transit agency, to build a 5.9-mile streetcar line downtown. Confronted with a strong anti-streetcar backlash, the mayor and city council are tabling the streetcar discussion into the update of its long range transportation and moving forward with a Charter Amendment next May 2015 that would prohibit the City from funding any streetcar project or allowing streetcar’s on their right-of-way without voter approval.
VIA Board Chairman, Alexander Briseno, explained, “Although we are disappointed that the value of the modern streetcar was not understood or realized by many, we remain optimistic and are committed to continue with our 2035 Comprehensive Transportation Plan.”
Similarly last year in Cincinnati, Ohio, the city council halted $42 million in funding for a $147.8 million, 3.6-mile streetcar project while it was under construction. Then newly elected Mayor John Cranley felt his anti-streetcar stance meant people agreed with him on the subject. An independent audit determined it would cost the city as much to cancel the project as to finish it, and local business leaders stepped in to provide partial funding.
But these setbacks are exceptions to the national trend. There are over 40 streetcar projects nationwide in stages from planning to completion. The quiet revolution that started over a decade ago in Portland, Oregon, and spread to cities across the country has received significant support from the federal transit administration with the appointment of former Charlotte, North Carolina, Mayor Anthony Foxx to Secretary of Transportation in 2013.
By the end of 2014, both Atlanta and Washington D.C. should have new streetcar lines. In 2015, Kansas City will open its 2.2-mile $100 million starter line, followed by Cincinnati’s line in 2016. “It behooves us to recognize that our infrastructure is not going to get better,” said Kansas City Mayor Sly James, “unless we find [local] ways to pay for it.”