Word is getting around today that Kansas City will not get the $25 million in federal fundung it wanted for the proposed downtwon streetcar line.
That doesn't mean all is lost. Federal money is tight, and requests ($10 billion-plus from all over the country) far exceeded the amount the U.S. Department of Transportation had to give out ($500 milliion). City officials presumably will get right back in line, file their paperwork and hope for a different result next time around. It's the way these things work. Meanwhile, there's a second revenue stream, as residents and property owners along the proposed line vote this summer on a property tax.
It's not as if we were going to see commuter rail trains in Independence and street cars in Kansas City next week. Officials are seriously reluctant to give timeframes -- because that sounds like a promise, and there's almost always slippage -- but my discussions with them suggest that having something to ride somewhere useful by the middle of the decade is within reach. For example, when Jackson County Mike Sanders unveiled his six-spoke commuter rail plan in 2009, making heavy use of existing tracks, he said they could build the whole thing in 18 months -- if the $1 billion-plus needed for the project suddenly and magically appeared.
It doesn't go that way, and planners know that. It's one grant, one election, one route at a time. Sanders and his team are focused on the first two lines -- to Independence/Blue Springs/Grain Valley and to Lee's Summit -- while taking a closer look at gaps in the metro area's overall transportation system. None of that gets solved easily or instantly. The bus folks, the train folks, the roads-and-bridges folks all see things differently, and it takes time to build consensus. The feds have money but very deliberate, time-consuming processes to dole it out. And the metro area's almost endless number of jurisdictions doesn't help.
The streetcar line (from Union Station to the River Market) and the commuter rail system (officials are back to hoping for Union Station as the hub) would work together for the main goal: moving people to and from work and improving the area's economic vitality. So a setback for one is a concern to proponents of the other, but setbacks will happen.
Speaking of setbacks, there's Congress. The House and Senate have been stalemated for some time over a new transportation bill, the kind of legislation that used to be noncontroversial and used to be passed more or less on time regardless of which party was in charge. But for a couple of years, Congress has been unable to do any more than pass temporary, continuing bills that keep the lights on at the relevant agencies and keep money flowing for roads and bridges (including 18 cents for every gallon of gas you buy), but a new major bill is stalled. Meanwhile, at least one key House leader has been quoted as saying they're basically done legislating for the year, at least with anything big. That would be distressing for local commuter rail propoents. Sanders says this bill -- if and when it passes -- will create perhaps the last good chance for several years for metro area to tap into the share of that 18 cents a gallon set aside for rail transit.
The Washington Post reports today that key legislators say they are making a push. They either need to get it done in a couple of days or -- you guessed it -- kick the can down the road again. They have expressed optimism at various times in the last few months. Maybe this time they'll be right. Sanders, for his part, has been realistic: We might not see that big transporation bill, he has said, until early 2013, after the November elections clear the air.