Kansas City streetcar backers pitched skeptics on its potential to spur downtown economic development and create a better metropolitan mass transit system.
The argument worked, and it’s proving true, a Kansas City civic leader said Thursday in Omaha, where city leaders are considering a streetcar line.
The RideKC Streetcar “has been an amazing catalyst for redevelopment in our urban core area,” said Joe Reardon, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Area Chamber of Commerce.
The 2-mile streetcar line in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, opened in May 2016. Reardon said it had 1.4 million riders last year. He said it has 5,400 daily riders.
Reardon said the streetcar has contributed to $1.8 billion in downtown real estate development. Revenue from a special one-cent sales tax in the streetcar district went up 58 percent in fiscal year 2016 from 2014, when streetcar construction was underway, the Kansas City Star has reported. That’s more than projected, and it shows increased economic activity caused by the streetcar, Reardon said.
Kansas City now is considering extending the streetcar as the city works toward a more unified, more useful metropolitan transit system.
Reardon, the former head of the Kansas City Area Transit Authority, was mayor of Kansas City, Kansas, for eight years.
He spoke Thursday to 130 people attending the Heartland 2050 Winter Summit at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in South Omaha.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, a voluntary association of local governments, brought Reardon to Omaha as part of its Close the Gap initiative. That metro Omaha-Council Bluffs effort aims to “coordinate land use and transit to create a more walkable, livable region.”
In Omaha, the Metro transit agency is working on the city’s first bus rapid transit line. It’s expected to begin operating between Westroads Mall and downtown by late next year.
The first-phase of an Omaha streetcar also has been proposed for downtown and midtown Omaha.
Reardon said a “windshield tour” Wednesday showed him that a lot is happening in Omaha now. He said the tour also showed him Omaha could benefit from a streetcar line.
In promoting expanded mass transit in metropolitan Kansas City, Reardon said he and other proponents encountered a mentality that “we’re a car town” — but not as much as he expected they would.
He said many people are more familiar with public transit than they used to be because so many cities are doing so much more of it.
Reardon asked how many people in the room had used public transportation while visiting another city. Almost everyone raised a hand.
Then he asked how many people regularly use public transportation in Omaha. Fewer than two dozen hands went up.
Reardon said Kansas City proponents changed the dialogue and perspective about multi-modal transit to focus on how it can help economic growth. They promoted transit planning as a way to support the development of local businesses and to attract new ones.
For example, suburban businesses and urban job advocates see a transit system as valuable in connecting people who need jobs with employers who need workers.
Willie Hamilton, president and CEO of Black Men United in Omaha, said the city could use such connections. He said a lot of the good jobs in Omaha are in the suburbs, but people from north Omaha neighborhoods can’t get bus service to come home after work.
Reardon said the Kansas City region is working on a system that includes more express buses, expanded hours and even ride-sharing vans that travel routes as needed at the time, and not on fixed routes. He said the streetcar line is part of that.
Reardon said he sees bus rapid transit and modern streetcar lines as “bread-and-butter” infrastructure that can enable economic development, like roads projects do.
He cited Interstate 435 and Interstate 70 intersection improvements in suburban Kansas City. Eventually, that area attracted Cabela’s, Nebraska Furniture Mart and the Kansas Speedway, Reardon said.
Similarly, a modern streetcar line is a transportation project that attracts economic development to under-developed urban areas.
Reardon said downtown redevelopment was happening in Kansas City before the streetcar came along. The streetcar is speeding it up, he said. A lot of the new buildings are going up on old surface parking lots.
Reardon said he sees parallels in Omaha. Along with what he called “remarkable” redevelopment, he also noticed something else while touring midtown and downtown Omaha — a number of old surface parking lots.
Greg Youell, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, said Omaha is “kind of at the beginning” of the type of regional transit planning in which Reardon has been involved.
“I see the BRT (bus rapid transit) and streetcar as the first pieces of expanding that regional transit,” Youell said.