by Bill Onasch
Long dissed by promoters of “light” rail, streetcars are now being widely marketed as cool and Green. I don’t have any credentials for designating cool but I have some strong opinions, based on study and personal experience, about the conditions that could make streetcars useful today. While this article focuses on Kansas City, I think the basic issues and arguments are applicable throughout most of North America.
After decades of studies; voter rejection of several past light rail proposals; voter approval of a loony tunes light rail proposal by a gadfly skilled in gathering signatures that was later tossed out by the City Council; actual construction has begun on a 2-mile “starter” streetcar line running through downtown Kansas City. Tracks are being laid at great expense on streets well served by buses. This streetcar to nowhere in particular is identical to an earlier light rail plan that the then Mayor accurately characterized as “touristy froo-froo.”
The fact that this project has been taken on by City Hall rather than the transit agency designated for the metropolitan area is a telling clue that its mission is one of tax payer supported “development” favoring the rich and famous rather than improving shamefully neglected transit service. The decision not to use ATA unionized workers to operate and maintain the new streetcars is the opening salvo in a war already declared on the Amalgamated Transit Union by the City Manager.
This devious return of the streetcar as stalking horse for greed also signifies a return to crisis for Kansas City area transit. It needs to be countered by explaining the truth to the public–and mobilizing transit workers and riders, the rest of the labor movement and environmentalists, students and senior citizens, to force the politicians to back off. Once we secure what we have, these same forces can compel action to greatly expand and improve genuine transit.
Before going further I think it would be useful to put our present predicament in some historical context.
Getting to the End of the Line
As well as being the country’s number two rail center, as it remains today, by the beginning of the Twentieth Century Kansas City already featured an extensive electrified street railway and Inter-Urban system.
At the time this considerable capital investment was undertaken there were no motor buses and the streets themselves were of poor quality. Steel wheels running on steel rails were the only viable option for urban mass transit.
Much of Kansas City’s streetcar network utilized long stretches of private right of way, involving innovative bridges, tunnels, and elevated sections. Some of this was still in use as I was growing up in the Fifties. As a kid I always looked forward to riding on the elevated span across the stockyards where “cowboys” could be seen herding livestock to their demise.
A few lines offered 24 hour “owl service” while others used the wee hours to move freight. Electric switch engines took loads of lumber and furniture from the Frisco Dodson yard to customers along Wornall and, across the old Trolley Bridge, to Westport. They also moved cement from Lone Star in Bonner Springs, via an old Inter-Urban line connecting with Kansas Avenue, to building contractors in Armourdale.
In 1938, the Public Service Company started converting some lines that ran only on streets to trolley buses. These combined the numerous advantages of electric power with much of the flexibility of a bus. The heavily used Prospect line had a dual set of wires that allowed rush hour express buses to pass up local service.
Most lines ran around the clock during the wartime industrial mobilization and ridership for the whole system peaked in 1948. About that time the last new track was laid extending the Troost line from 55th to 63rd.
But in less than a decade it was all gone. On a sad Saturday in June, 1957 I spent several hours riding the Country Club and Dodson lines on the last day that Kansas City streetcars ran. The following year the plug was pulled on the trolley buses as well. The impressive electrified system that had worked well to the end was finally completely destroyed, totally replaced by diesel and propane powered buses.
The Public Service Company didn’t last much longer. In 1960 it changed hands and name to Kansas City Transit. In 1969, the assets of the virtually bankrupt KC Transit became the catalyst for today’s quasi-public Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. The new ATA was a special bistate compact, including seven counties in Missouri and Kansas, created by Congress under the umbrella of the recently passed Urban Mass Transit Act.
A Costly Arranged Marriage
The decimation of a once thriving transit system was not unique to Kansas City. From the 1950s on it became the norm in all but a handful of U.S. cities. Only the passage of the Urban Mass Transit Act during the Nixon administration, providing some Federal capital and operating assistance, saved many areas from a complete loss of transit service. What survived was usually pretty bare bones.
The Establishment’s explanation of a far greater decline in transit than in any other industrialized country is “America’s Love Affair With the Car.” But this was not monogamous love at first sight. Cars coexisted with streetcars in to the Fifties. What blossomed then was not romantic fidelity but a carefully orchestrated car dependency.
One component of the plan was the takeover of dozens of local streetcar companies by a consortium–including General Motors, Firestone, and Philips Petroleum as silent investors– for the sole purpose of wrecking them. In this they were highly successful. The remnants of the remaining systems bought buses, tires, and fuel from them. But this conniving was only a segue in to a grander scheme that has had a wide range of adverse impacts on society–Urban Sprawl.
Abandoning the Core
When Europe started rebuilding after the devastation of World War II most cities opted to replicate what had been lost, maintaining their urban density and devoting considerable resources to their transit systems. Postwar America took a much different route.
The U.S. homeland hadn’t suffered damage during the war but returning American GIs, who would soon launch the Baby Boom, nevertheless found an acute housing shortage. During fifteen continuous years of Depression and War little new housing had been built and much existing had fallen in to disrepair. But instead of building and renovating in existing urban cores speculators used war profits to buy up cheap “undeveloped” land surrounding cities with the aim of building new suburbs of single-family houses with lawns and flowers.
Some of the “undeveloped” land acquired had supplied the city with fresh milk, eggs, and vegetables. Today these products usually come from sources hundreds, even thousands of miles away.
The developers also cleared away natural forests and wetlands not knowing, or not caring that this would bring unwelcome ecological changes.
Their new projects were far beyond existing streetcar and bus service but this they saw as a bonus, not a problem.
The national trend of Sprawl could not have succeeded without politicians providing enormous tax payer subsidies that included affordable VA and FHA mortgage loan guarantees, extension of freeways and tollways off the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System to the new housing, and state and Federal assistance for establishing new schools, police, and fire departments.
Kansas City tried to avoid the situation St Louis faced–sealed off from expansion by a solid ring of suburban towns–by carrying out a series of vast annexations to the north, east and south that increased the city’s area by a mind-boggling 500 percent. But population density plunged so much that the 2010 census showed an increase of less than one percent over the 1950 count.
Of course, it wasn’t just construction contractors and banks that reaped big rewards from Sprawl. In the Fifties working class households typically had one car at most. Today there are more cars and light trucks registered in this country than there are licensed drivers. The dearth of public transit outside the now largely depleted urban cores has established a new goal of a personal car for every individual of driving age.
Along with this car dependency, induced not by love but Sprawl, has come enormous consumption of gasoline leading to not only increasingly frequent ozone alerts but, most importantly, greenhouse gas emissions producing climate change.
Ultimately, to meet the challenge of climate change, the curse of Sprawl needs to be reversed by rebuilding liveable urban cores. That’s a big task beyond the scope of this article. But an important component is expanding the scale and quality of mass transit–and that’s doable now.
Are Streetcars Green?
Electric propulsion is superior in every way to diesel–including greatly reducing greenhouse emissions. Where streetcars have remained in service–such as Philadelphia and San Francisco–they should be kept running. If new lines are projected to run primarily over private right-of-ways–such as the highly successful MetroLink in St Louis and Hiawatha line in Minneapolis–they will be worth every penny of the considerable capital investment and maintenance involved. In both St Louis and Minneapolis these achievements were planned and are directed by the local equivalents of the ATA and the work is done by members of the same ATU Locals representing bus operations.
But for routes projected to run on streets there is a better and far less costly electric option–the trolley bus. As I mentioned earlier they were once effectively used in Kansas City. They are common in Europe, used in most major Canadian cities, and are key parts of transit in Philadelphia, Dayton, Seattle and San Francisco.
Trolley buses would be ideal for high volume routes in Kansas City such as on Main, Troost, Prospect, and Independence Avenue. But since they don’t fit the image of touristy froo-froo they have not even been considered by the transit experts at the Chamber of Commerce or their branch office at City Hall.
A Plan of Our Own
So far, official transit proposals in Kansas City have always been presented in take it or leave it form, to be either approved without prior input or possibility of change–or rejected. So far, they have been rejected–and that’s what voters should do again in August when the vote comes up to authorize new taxes in a new tax district to pay for expansion beyond the done deal “starter” streetcar line.
But this time rejection should be followed by a positive initiative from the grassroots. Instead of schemes to assist the monied interests who are represented so well at City Hall a plan for expanded, environmentally friendly, secure mass transit, that can get people where they want to go, when they want to go, at an affordable cost should be pulled together.
Transit riders and workers whose common interests are visibly reaffirmed every day can initiate such efforts but will need to reach out to allies who can be won over throughout the community. In fact, there is no reason to wait until the outcome of the August vote to start this process leading to a transit alternative to development scams.
But Wait, There’s More
Unfortunately, the streetcar boondoggle is not the only threat in the revival of the Kansas City transit crisis. Kansas City, Missouri is by far the biggest user of the ATA’s Metro bus service. At an interest (contract) arbitration hearing between the ATA and ATU Local 1287, City Manager Troy Schulte announced his intention to cancel City contracts for forty percent of Metro routes. The City would replace this service with a new workforce and management and most likely second-hand buses. He claims to have the full support of the Mayor and City Council. One Council member was a long time general manager of the ATA.
This would be a debilitating blow to a Metro already shrunken by numerous service reductions. It would mean the loss of about 250 middle class jobs, many held by African-Americans who would face tough prospects for finding similar pay and benefits. It’s a union busting outsourcing pure and simple. They may be mostly Democrats at City Hall but their attitude toward working people is no different than the Tea Party.
ATU 1287 is preparing to mobilize against this attack on vital public service and public service workers. They have even stirred up some of us retirees. It’s a fight ATU members can’t afford to lose–and neither can the working class community.
Bill Onasch is a retired Metro bus driver and a former Vice-President of ATU Local 1287.
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