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KC Streetcar: Looking to the Future

KC Streetcar Urbos 801 outside Union Station on opening day, 6 May 2016, awaiting its first departure. (H. Retallick)

Hans Retallick discovers how the successful reintroduction of trams to Kansas City after a break of 57 years is just one major part of a transformational regeneration programme for this ‘Smart City’.


The morning of 6 May 2016 saw a large crowd gathering outside the recently renovated Union Station in Kansas City for the grand opening of the first Streetcar service in the city since 1957. The culmination of many proposals and a planning process that commenced in 2011, the new 16-stop line serves important areas in the city’s downtown area for a distance of 3.5km (2.2 miles).
Kansas City, with a metropolitan area population of over two million, is unusual in that it is located in two states – State Line Road which divides Kansas from Missouri goes through the centre of the city on a north-south axis. Kansas City, KS, and Kansas City, MO, form the heart of the district, with a large number of other urbanised areas spreading out in all directions.
Located on the Missouri River, the city quickly became one of the most important US railway junctions in the early 20th Century and in its heyday boasted a 25-line streetcar network – one of the largest in the nation. From horse-drawn services that began in 1870 and electrification from the late 1880s, the streetcar followed the growth of the rapidly expanding city under the stewardship of the Metropolitan Street Railway Company that lasted until 1914.
By the 1920s the effects of increased private car ownership were becoming apparent, and the succeeding Kansas City Railway Company only lasted five years before entering receivership in 1920.
The peak for ridership was just over 135 million in 1922 with the 769 streetcars and 76 buses carrying less than 113 million in 1929 as the Great Depression struck. In 1925 the Kansas City Public Service Company
took over from the receivers, and despite many pressures and severely declining ridership (from a low of 67 million fare-paying passengers in 1932, the system saw peaks and troughs throughout the 1930s and 1940s but never more than 100m passengers) managed to stay solvent for 30 years. The new company made substantial investments in vehicles and infrastructure, and converted the streetcars to one-man operation.

The route to closure
In 1931 came the first track abandonment, and motor buses started to take over from streetcar routes. In 1938 trolleybuses were first used, and by 1939 there were 78 in service, but with 492 streetcars still running together with 227 buses.
A temporary reprieve was granted by World War Two when large numbers of industries relocated to Kansas City and there was a consequent boom in streetcar use. The large numbers of returning GIs also ensured an explosion in population, and the company made plans for retention of 12 key streetcar lines; there was even a small post-war extension built, one of the few in the post-war USA.
Some fine PCC cars had been delivered pre-war, and these were added to by post-war deliveries with a fleet of 184, in their smart cream and black livery, providing the core of the services in the post-war period. Ridership very nearly made the record figures of 1922 for a couple of years immediately after the war’s end, but sadly, the writing was on the wall for the streetcars. The explosion in automobile usage, coupled with the development of land further and further from the city centre, meant that the streetcar was rapidly sidelined. Another major factor was that as a streetcar operator the company was bound by law to contribute to the cost of road improvements, and it took the pragmatic view that if streetcar lines were abandoned they could still be run by buses on the same roads without incurring any development costs.
A decision was made in 1955 to close the few remaining lines, and by 1957 the last of the PCC cars which had been the mainstay of services had run (many of them being sold for further service elsewhere), and the system was closed. On 23 June 1957, the last streetcar, 778, ran on the Country Club route 56, some of which is covered by the current new line. With the growing network of new highways, and the development of residential areas together with their attendant shopping facilities further into the suburbs, the downtown area became depopulated and retail facilities largely abandoned.

Modern redevelopment
By 1983 the once vibrant Union Station had closed to passengers and a failed partnership to redevelop the magnificent building had deteriorated into painful and drawn-out litigation as the structure itself crumbled and the city centre became an increasingly unattractive destination. An historic Bistate Tax Initiative, the first in US history, provided USD118m towards the USD260m reconstruction – with the remainder coming from federal grants and private donations. The station has now become a retail, leisure and education centre. Amtrak services returned to Union Station in December 2002.
Until March 2016, Kansas City PCC 511 was displayed outside Union Station. Originally built by the St. Louis Car Company of Missouri for the Kansas City Public Service, where it ran between 1947 and 1957, upon the system’s closure it was sold to Toronto where it ran until 1973 before transfer to San Francisco where it was used until 1979. In storage for 25 years at the Western Railway Museum in Rio Vista, California, 511 returned to Kansas City in 2006 and was placed on display. It moved from Union Station in March to make room for Union Station’s Western Expansion project, but it is hoped it can return for display in the future.
Several other projects to revive the city centre were proposed over the next couple of decades and as part of this process there were several proposals to bring railed transport back to the streets. Sadly none were successful until the present line was first mooted in 2011. A Transportation Development District (TDD) was formed and local residents and business owners voted in favour of a new streetcar line to create links between strategic downtown areas. Despite a setback upon changes in local government, the project went ahead and currently enjoys significant support from Mayor Sly James.
Finance was raised from local sales and property taxes supported by a federal TIGER grant of USD20m and other federal grants totalling USD37.1m; just under USD63m in construction bonds covered the rest. Total construction costs were around USD102m, delivered by a joint venture of Herzog Contracting and Stacy & Witbeck, and it is envisaged that the operating costs of the new line (approx. USD2m/year) will be met in their entirety by local sales and property taxes, thus allowing the KC Streetcar to remain free to ride. The first works took place in May 2014, with the first clearance runs taking place using CAF-built 801 on 5 November 2015 and powered testing starting a week later.

The Kansas City Streetcar Authority (KCSA) is a not-for-profit organisation of local authority and business leaders formed for the purpose of managing, operating, and maintaining the streetcar system on behalf of the city. Operations and maintenance are contracted to Herzog Transit Services under a five-year USD15.8m agreement signed in October 2015. Herzog employs 16 drivers and five maintenance staff.
It is envisaged the timetable would be operated with three vehicles Monday-Saturday with a two-car service running on Sundays, but high initial loadings saw four cars in operation at periods, with ridership recorded at over 32 000 for the first weekend alone. Average weekday ridership is now 6000/day.
In addition to overseeing streetcar operations, the KCSA supports system branding, marketing, public communication and community engagement. While established as a separate entity, the KCSA works closely with the City of Kansas City, Missouri and the downtown Transportation Development District (TDD) to co-ordinate service development and long-term management of the streetcar. Day-to-day functions are managed by its Executive Director, Tom Gerend, with oversight from the Board of Directors.
After leaving a stub end next to Union Station on the west side of Main Street, the line takes a sharp curve across to the east side of Main Street. This is traffic light-controlled, and takes the line into the kerbside on the east side where the alignment continues up Main Street, through the heart of the downtown area with a number of stops including the important Power and Light district before taking the Delaware Street bridge over the I-35 interstate highway. Incidentally, the majority of the Main Street section between 18th and 9th Streets was once covered by a cable car line of the Metropolitan Street Railway.
The route then comes into the Old Market district where the northbound line does a 90° right turn into 5th Street followed by three 90° left turns into Grand Boulevard, East 3rd Street and Delaware Street again which takes it around the market area with all of its shops, restaurants and bars, and the famous ‘Arabia’ riverboat museum. There are three stops on the Market loop.
Facing south again it rejoins the northbound line in Delaware Street just before returning to the I-35 bridge. The depot line branches off the loop at the junction of Grand Boulevard and E 3rd Street, going down Grand Boulevard until it turns right into Oak Street.
Kansas City ordered its 23.6m three-section Urbos trams from CAF USA and the four delivered to the system formed part of a batch of nine trams assembled in Elmira, New York. The other five were delivered to Cincinnati, and had all been delivered at the time of the Kansas City opening. The 100% low-floor air-conditioned vehicles each have a passenger capacity of 148 and the fleet is numbered 801-804, picking up the series where it left off more than 50 years ago with the 725-799 streetcar series.
The vehicles have performed well to date and initial service operations have been very successful; the Authority has stated that it is pleased with its decision to choose the Urbos with praise for the manufacturer’s support.
The 2320m2 (approx. 25 000ft2) depot, operations and administrative centre is a new building located at Singleton Yard (named after local architect and long-time transit advocate E. Crichton ‘Kite’ Singleton) on Holmes Street between 1st and 3rd Streets, and the access track passes under the approach to Heart of America Bridge over
the Missouri River.
The building is a striking new two-storey development in a rather run-down area, and as such is symbolic of the regeneration that the streetcar is bringing to the city. The facility has three roads, one of which is a separate wash area. The other two roads form the well equipped maintenance area with a parts elevator and mezzanine on one side at roof level. Much of the vehicle’s electronics is at this level and access is very simple.
The facility boasts an above-floor wheel lathe which ensures that re-profiling can be done in-house. The depot and administrative facility is built into a slope so the mezzanine level is the same as the office block accessed from Holmes Street.

The future
As one would expect, the operators are coy about future plans, but extensions are certainly envisaged. Whilst the potential traffic to the outer suburbs with very low density population and high car ownership wouldn’t support lengthy extensions, the sensible extension of the line to the south and the Country Club Plaza would be a logical move, and would potentially generate a lot of traffic, from both shopping and leisure riders.
The Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance is currently pushing forward a proposal for a 6km (3.75-mile) southern extension along Main Street to the University of Missouri–Kansas City’s Volker Campus funded through a new TDD to replace the Downtown Streetcar TDD. It suggests a capital cost estimate of USD227m for the extension and is facilitating efforts to obtain local funding approval.
East-west extensions haven’t been ruled out either, but any further development would involve fares being charged, although it is currently envisaged that the Main Street line will remain free to use.
One of the unique features of the KC Streetcar is the massive support from the private sector in the development of the scheme. The region has become very attractive for technology companies in recent years, with Google selecting Kansas City as the first metropolitan area to be served by Google Fiber high-speed internet. Companies such as greeting cards giant Hallmark, telecoms conglomerate Sprint, global taxation consultancy H&R Block and GPS technology company Garmin  all call Kansas City home, however, a true renaissance in entrepreneurship and a renewed sense of a vibrant startup community has emerged in recent years.
The city is ranked highly among the largest metropolitan areas in the US for high-tech startup density in the 21st Century. This might strike some as surprising since Kansas City is far from ‘traditional’ tech hubs such as California’s Silicon Valley, New York or Boston, however it’s less of a surprise to those familiar with the technology ecosystem here. Kansas City’s growing tech density and its burgeoning startup activity demonstrates that the city has true viability as an alternative and major national and international technology players are truly taking note.
The entire line is served by free public Wi-Fi and many other innovations are in part tied into the line’s development and are helping to earn ‘Smart City’ status. The intelligent Wi-Fi network delivered by Cisco and Sprint in partnership with the city not only closely monitors the streetcar network and traffic signals, but also features sensors on key city infrastructure elements to monitor weather conditions and integrated smart LED street lighting. In addition to getting free Wi-Fi along the streetcar route, opted-in smartphone users might also receive targeted ads and real-time promotions for restaurant specials.
Thirteen of the 16 new stops feature large interactive displays that operate over Wi-Fi and with wireless beacons. Cisco and the city also hope to harvest a variety of opt-in data gathered from visitors’ smartphones, local businesses and residents about the city’s retail destinations and services as well as any problems or complaints. Aggregate data will inform expansion of both the Wi-Fi zone and could even be used to determine future extension priorities for the streetcar.
Many commentators are unsure about the benefits of some of these services and how the returns will be measured, but what is interesting is that the streetcar project is seen as the catalyst for the regeneration of the city centre, with the high-tech integration being a spin-off which could bring many benefits and efficiencies in lots of different areas.
Coupled with the streetcar’s arrival is the development of many new city centre facilities such as serviced office blocks for start-up companies, and all the things that go with these such as restaurants and entertainment centres. The massive new performing arts centre, the Kauffman Center, is just a short walk from the streetcar line as is the modern 19 000 seat multi-purpose Sprint Stadium.
Investment in the area is estimated by the city to have been USD500m along the streetcar route with USD1bn in the wider city region. If there was ever a message that trams could bring regeneration, Kansas City shows the way.