In a world of made-up news stories and overblown media hype, the unsubstantiated success of the Kansas City streetcar line looms large…
Check out a recent front page headline in the local newspaper of record:
“Transit line needs more cars; KC’s streetcars are so so crowded that the authority is starting the process to buy two more vehicles”
Now let’s move beyond fantasy and exaggeration towards reality.
Streetcar supporters claim the River Market to Union Station route has drawn an average of 6,600 daily riders with Saturday ridership “often exceeding” 10,000.
Hold it right there…
“That’s beyond ridiculous,” says a local public transportation expert. “There’s absolutely no way they could be moving that many passengers. To anybody who works in the industry, those numbers are blatant lies.”
Former KC Strip trolly system main man Bill Nigro declined to address the believability of four 150-capacity streetcars moving that many riders in a low traffic part of town, but did offer some insight from his years of running trollies between downtown, Westport, the Plaza and Waldo.
“At our best, we did 2,000 people on a New Year’s Eve with 11 busses and that was a cluster-fuck,” Nigro says. “And unlike the streetcars we did it with tickets so we could get an accurate count. On a normal Saturday night we might do anywhere from 300 to 500 people and our busses stayed pretty full. To say they did over 13,000 people one day with only four streetcars is totally beyond the realm of possibility.”
Let’s take a look at my alma mater the University of Arizona in Tucson.
The Tucson Department of Transportation claims its new Sun Link streetcar line averaged more than 4,000 riders in its first year of operation.
And while even that may be a stretch, it’s 40 percent less than the number the vested interests in Kansas City have been floating. On top of which, Tucson’s streetcar route has a demonstrable geographic and demographic advantage over KC’s.
Case in point, Downtown KC is home to only 20,000 or so residents – many of whom aren’t even close to its pickup and drop points.
Whereas Arizona’s Sun Link runs from the 40,000 student strong University of Arizona, a short distance to 4th Avenue – Tucson’s tres hip, dining and shopping equivalent of Westport and 39th Street combined – and then on to the town’s trendy, thriving downtown.
**** It only takes 5 percent of the U of A’s hard-partying student body making round trip shopping, dining and/or clubbing runs to reach Sun Link’s claimed ridership.
**** Where KC has only four – with maybe only three in play at any given time – Tucson’s Sun Link has eight streetcars of the same size, with as many as six in service.
**** And given its far superior route, Tucson’s streetcarshave been able to pay their own way from the get go with one way fares of $1.50 per rider and all-day passes available for $3.50. The KC streetcars are free.
So yes, 4,000 riders is a believable number.
The Sun Link run is basically the equivalent of KC streetcar riders being able to go from the River Market to Power & Light, Westport, 39th Street, the Plaza and UMKC in 15 to 20 minutes. And in a resort style climate where the weather is all but the hottest months of the summer.
“If you did your homework and went up and down the streetcar route here and asked the businesses if they’ve seen an average of 6,600 people go by in the streetcars everyday, you’d get a far different answer,” says a source. “With the number of streetcars operating in Kansas City today that’s physically impossible. And they haven’t even been through a winter yet. We’ll see how many people will wait outside in the cold then. They’ll definitely see a drop in the winter.”
The betting money on KC’s actual ridership numbers?
“Maybe 1,000 people,” says a source. “A thousand people is a lot to handle with just four streetcars – you’d be surprised.”
Good thing, because it’s gonna cost another $227 million to add 3.75 more miles to take it to Brookside and UMKC.