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Banking on KC – Tom Gerend of KC Streetcar Authority

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Tom Gerend, the executive director of KC Streetcar Authority. He's here to give us an update on some of the exciting, new developments for the KC Streetcar, where it's headed and how it's impacting Kansas City. Welcome, Tom.

Tom Gerend:

Thank you for having me, Kelly. Happy to be here.

Kelly Scanlon:

There's been so many exciting announcements over the last several years about the streetcar, especially since earlier efforts to bring a broader public transportation system to Kansas City, beyond the bus lines, had been talked about for decades but never really went anywhere until the streetcar. What factors finally coalesced to bring the vision of the streetcar to reality?

Tom Gerend:

Well, it's a great question and you're absolutely right. We had literally decades of fits and starts on how to really revive our public transportation system and take the next big step, and we had had years and years of failed attempts that were not successful for a variety of reasons.

Tom Gerend:

And I think looking back, we learned a lot from the failures in terms of where we had issues, where we had a hard time building public support. Not surprisingly, we've got a really big, sprawling city and metropolitan area, pretty autocentric, and we are pretty suburban, and from the sense of how most of our metropolitan peers sort of shaped themselves and have grown over time; and so there were skeptics. There's people who didn't believe we could do it. They didn't believe that it would be utilized, that we're a car culture in Kansas City, and so we had to fight all of those misperceptions in part and really we are the Show Me State. We had to prove that the project would work.

Tom Gerend:

And in order to get there really was a series of things that converged in about 2010, 2011. It was strong support from downtown residents who were really mandating that we do something more impactful to help drive reinvestment in downtown, make downtown more vibrant and up our transit game. And that was coupled with elected leadership in city council who got the vision and were really dedicated to move it forward and get creative in thinking about how do we overcome funding challenges, governance challenges, all of the things that go into making a big project like this happen.

Tom Gerend:

It really was a coming together of the public stakeholders and the property owners and the residents who really had a vision and they were ahead of our elected leadership, and been really motivating in pulling, supporting, then Mayor James and some council members along to really pick this up as a priority local initiative. And we were fortunate they did. And there was a great partnership that was formed between business residents and the city of Kansas City to really launch this system in 2011 after, again, lots of failed attempts in the past.

Kelly Scanlon:

So all those forces coming together, as you say, were necessary for the work to begin on this, first to get the approvals and then to begin the work on what was a two and a half mile downtown starter line in 2013. And then as I recall, construction was completed in 2015 and then ridership after some initial testing was opened in May 2016. What were some of the goals with that downtown starter line, how have you progressed towards them and what is the impact been?

Tom Gerend:

We really had four goals driving the rationale for why to build a streetcar downtown. First was connectivity. We have independent neighborhoods in the River Market, the Downtown Loop, Crossroads, and then Union Station and Crown Center; and that were all segregated from one another by obstacles, interstates, railroad tracks, big bridges. And they were all very unique in their own right. But we knew if we could connect them together, that it would really help to redefine the downtown experience and leverage the best of all of those individual components to make an even greater whole, so connectivity.

Tom Gerend:

And I'm happy to be reporting in five years of operation, not quite five, carried almost 9 million passenger trips, very quickly became the highest ridership route in the whole region and brought a whole new group to public transit that had never ridden public transportation in the past. That was goal one, connectivity and moving people.

Tom Gerend:

Goal two was really to serve as a backbone for reinvestment and development. There's been lots of studies, lots of proof, frankly, even in our own city over the years, with regards to the impact transportation investment can have on incenting, encouraging, inciting investment in the built environment. And our city actually was built around a 300-mile streetcar network in the early 1900s.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes.

Tom Gerend:

Many of our corridors, many of the buildings, the old buildings that we love, were built and located, and where they're located and how they are currently configured based on their proximity to the transit system at the time, and we had one of the largest streetcar systems in the country. And so it's really getting back to recognizing that connection and how do we invest in infrastructure like streetcar that can serve as a backbone for development. And we've had over $4 billion now of active development within our downtown areas since we started construction of the streetcar. And we knew this was a factor and it was a rationale, but we far up aced the forecasts for development and incentive development that we thought we might encourage.

Tom Gerend:

And we're the first to say, it's not all streetcar. There's a lot of factors that go into deciding locations for developments. It's amazing how many developers, even many from out of town came to Kansas City and are happy to say, but for streetcar we wouldn't have been here investing and something right on the alignment. And so the transformation in that regard has been remarkable and we've seen a 40% increase in residential density within a three-block radius, so we're building up a whole new neighborhood.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, it's kind of circular. I bet that with the increased investment along there you have attracted more residential and it was part of the residents who wanted the streetcar to begin with, so it's becoming a full circle loop there.

Tom Gerend:

Yeah, exactly. And so bringing people and jobs back to the core of the city and really putting a stake in the ground and providing this part of town a competitive advantage that, frankly, most of the rest of the Metro can not offer, and so that's good for downtown and what's good for downtown is good for the region.

Tom Gerend:

And then the last two, quickly, of goals were... So it was connect, develop, thrive. It wasn't just about building new, but it was about supporting existing businesses downtown. And by moving lots of people, it's amazing the impact we had on things like sales tax, generation and sales. Businesses, obviously pre-COVID, grew their hours, they hired more people, they changed their menu. We pushed a lot of people to a lot through businesses, and that was great for small business. 97% said they saw a significant uptick after we opened the streetcar from before.

Tom Gerend:

And then lastly, it's sustainability. It needed to, not just environmentally but economically, needed to be a model that we could sustain. It wasn't just about building it, but it was about building it in a way that reinforces these goals that we've set out, really allows itself to be financially sustainable over a long period of time so it can operate and maintain it at a high level. On the four goals that we established, we really feel like we hit all of them out of the park.

Kelly Scanlon:

In early December, you received notice that the Federal Transit Administration was in their final 30-day review process for the, I believe it was $174 million expansion funding and I think you have recently announced that you have received that funding approval. What will that expansion look like? And by the way, congratulations on getting that. That is a huge deal.

Tom Gerend:

Yeah. It's a really big deal. It's a huge deal for the city. When you think about how the downtown streetcar has transformed, how people view and define downtown. Their experiences, that was a team mile starter line project, where it was really a circulator for downtown. Now, we're talking about extending that project three and a half miles south to the University of Missouri- Kansas City, through the heart of Midtown, through the heart of the city, past the Country Club Plaza, connecting our largest job centers in the city together.

Tom Gerend:

And you're right, we've been awarded $174 million to help build a $350 million public transit improvement. And it's not only the largest transit project that the region's ever undertaken, it's by far the largest grant that we've received to do so. We're bringing in lots of money. It's going to hire a lot of people to build a really big, impactful project that frankly is going to extend the benefits of what I've talked about downtown to a much wider swath of the city and makes streetcar much more accessible. And it's really going to transform the purpose from a downtown circulator to really what will be a spine of a regional multi-modal transit system, connecting regional bus routes, again our major job centers, our university.

Tom Gerend:

And just like it's catalyzed investment downtown, it's really served as a framework in organizing principle for investment. We know the same is true on Main Street, and we're already seeing signs and signals of amazing development trajectory for Main Street South through Midtown, in a neighborhood that had lost population and jobs over many years and has a great opportunity to really recreate itself for the next generation. These are generational investments. These are things that we do once a generation and they last for 50 years or longer. And so we're really reshaping the face of the city in a positive way that's going to have tremendous benefits, and that's really, really exciting.

Kelly Scanlon:

When do you see work ready to begin on this?

Tom Gerend:

Well, we've already starting. We've already had a groundbreaking for the infrastructure, the sewer and water, where these are really complicated, big projects. And it's one of the reasons they don't happen very often because they're really, really hard to do and they take a lot of partnerships and partners. We're working closely with KC Water right now on utility work. We don't want to put new streetcars on old infrastructure, other sewer and water work, moving private utilities. Two years of work that's now been kicked off, that starting on Main Street, to really upgrade the infrastructure.

Tom Gerend:

And then we like to talk about and take credit for, frankly, some of the improvements on the surface, like the nice shiny streetcars. But the reality is from a built environment standpoint and a city planning standpoint, the infrastructure under the street is just as important. In some cases, more important as we think about business continuity, the ability to really densify in a way that is feasible based on the availability of sound, solid, reliable infrastructure and basics, your water, power, those sorts of things. And so that's a huge part of what's happening right now, that's kicked off our streetcar. We'll really be starting in earnest late 2021 and early 2022. And we'll be out there testing streetcars by 2024, running them up and down Main Street before we open, hopefully late 2024.

Kelly Scanlon:

You got another extension that's going on as well, that's not part of this funding that you just received, and that is an extension over into Berkeley Riverfront Park. What is the reason for connecting to Berkeley Riverfront Park?

Tom Gerend:

Yes, so just for the listeners benefits, the Berkeley Riverfront Park extension is a northern extension from the City Market and it's only about a half mile, so it's really short and it's a much smaller scale. It's about $21 million in total, instead of 350, so it's a lot smaller. And what it's going to do is a few things. It's going to give us a northern terminus. Right now, we operationally, we just loop around the City Market, so this is going to allow us to build a station stop and a northern terminus where we would have a layover. And there's some operational benefits of that as our line grows farther south.

Tom Gerend:

It's also going to improve the connectivity to Berkeley Riverfront. Right now, Port KC is doing some amazing work redeveloping and activating Berkeley Riverfront Park with hundreds of new residential units in really a growing neighborhood. But the whole district still remains very isolated, really on an island because of topography challenges, roadway network limitations. There's no bicycle and pedestrian accommodations to the Riverfront. There's very little, but no transit connectivity.

Tom Gerend:

And so it's a beautiful, amazing place that's really now hard to get to and really requires a car. And so just like streetcar downtown helped to unify the crossroads and the River Market to the downtown core, the same will be true with the Riverfront with a really direct connection. And we're going to help really mitigate those connectivity challenges, connect it as part of a broader downtown that we're really redefining.

Tom Gerend:

And the benefits of that are twofold. One, it's going to really help to activate Port KC's development efforts by providing access and solving that accessibility challenge, and really increasing the amount of foot traffic and the visibility. It's going to make their developments on the Riverfront likely more dense, more transit oriented, and that's a good thing.

Tom Gerend:

And then secondarily, and almost just as important as all of that, it's going to connect the Riverfront as an amenity for the rest of the city. We have, again, a growing neighborhood downtown with 30,000 residents swimming in it. And part of living in a vibrant, urban area is needs for quality of life amenities like parks. And we have an amazing Riverfront Park, Riverfront Heritage Trail and beautiful to use, and vistas. And Bond Bridge is a backdrop that's frankly under utilized. It's very well utilized, but it could be better utilized by connecting all of the folks who are living downtown, many of whom are living car-free or car-light lifestyles via transit to the Riverfront. It's going to make that a component of the downtown and there'll be benefits for development, also the benefits for downtown residents to access that as an amenity in the years to come.

Kelly Scanlon:

One of the really interesting parts of the streetcar development is the way that... And you've been using the words, the bright, shiny streetcars. It's not just the bright, shiny streetcars. You have also been leveraging some of the other jewels of Kansas City. Just one example is the way that you're incorporating local artists. Talk with us about the way that you're leveraging that streetcar investment to add value to the city by incorporating some of the gems that we already have here.

Tom Gerend:

We viewed our job from a streetcar management perspective as not just operating a high quality, well-maintained streetcar system, but leveraging that investment to provide greater benefits. And so this has been an open dialogue with downtown and stakeholders and partnerships that we've formed from day one. How do we do that in creative, innovative ways? And one of the ways, you referenced, with our partnership with Art in the Loop about five years ago on an art specific program where we would leverage our streetcars and our shelters for temporary art downtown and opportunities for local artists to showcase their talents, and that's been amazingly successful. People have come from all over the country to actually tour some of the art exhibits and the temporary art installations, and attract us and become big fans of that org.

Tom Gerend:

We've rolled out partnerships, obviously with the Chiefs and the Royals and Sporting Kansas City, that are win-wins, where we get to help reinforce hometown pride. And then these things, they have advertising opportunities and we get to participate in really the community building aspect that these teams play in shaping, right, the character and the definition of our city.

Tom Gerend:

And just recently, maybe one of the neatest events that we've done, is the partnership with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and their 100th anniversary, and we just wrapped a Monarch streetcar. And we had a big ground breaking event at Union Station helping to acknowledge and pay respect to the 100th year birthday celebration. And so those are just a few of the ways, and we've got a great communications director, Donna Mandelbaum, who's been tremendously successful at forming partnerships with stakeholders downtown.

Tom Gerend:

Most of these things aren't things that we're able to do by ourselves. People are coming to us with cool ideas and we're open and willing to collaborate, and these are just some of the outcomes of that effort. And so great staff work and great community partners coming together for things that have really been win-wins. And they have really helped to redefine how people view, I think public transportation.

Tom Gerend:

And one of our goals was to make this an experience. It wasn't just riding the streetcar, but you might happen upon an onboard music series pre-COVID times or some sort of performing arts at a station stop or art that you may not have expected to encounter. And so it all sort of adds vibrancy and vitality to downtown and helps to elevate the experience that people have in interacting with our system, right, and spread the word. And so it's one of the reasons we think our satisfaction rates are off the charts high, right? We've really fostered this experience that, yes, it needs to be safe and it needs to be clean and it needs to be well-run and managed, but we can do more than that. And these partnerships were good illustrations of opportunities for how we've been able to make the most of what we have to work with.

Kelly Scanlon:

We've talked about this latest expansion through the Plaza up to UMKC, but I know that there's probably plans already in the works for expansion beyond that. Talk with us about the plans for future expansion and what the next steps are.

Tom Gerend:

We are already fielding questions from jurisdictions and partners around the region about the opportunities for continuing to make improvements in our streetcar and our public transit system more broadly. And we absolutely believe that this expansion effort is going to really launch and ignite a conversation in new regions. Because again, it's not just a downtown project that you warrant, a project that's touching many more people and it's a system that people can see themselves using in different ways. That, that expansion and that our progress is building momentum.

Tom Gerend:

And we're working closely with our great partners at Ride KC on a process right now actually to look at, what does our regional transit expansion plan look like, and not just from a bus or a streetcar standpoint but across all modes; and how might we position ourselves for continued growth and in bringing significant federal resource back to the region to continue to build out a more robust plan? There's no doubt already support. We're having conversations about East-West corridors, about corridors north across the Missouri River into North Kansas City, obviously Kansas City, Kansas connections and Johnson County. Really exciting and really the sky's the limit.

Tom Gerend:

There's a funding and financial reality to this. And I like to tell people there's really three legs to the expansion stool. It's financial feasibility, it's technical feasibility, and it's public support. And usually we start with the public support, where is their interest? And then obviously where does that align with the technical feasibility and financial feasibility to be able to get a plan done? I suspect we will see and we will greater definition 12 months from now on what the future expansion corridors beyond those that we've already talked about might be.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's look into the future a bit. If I interviewed you 20 years from now about the streetcar and its transformative impact, what would you tell our listeners about how it has shaped the community, how it shaped Kansas City, how it shaped the region that you just described?

Tom Gerend:

Well, I would start by reminding folks of what our city used to be like 20 years ago and what we started with, which is a sea of service parking lots, a downtown core that's lost significant jobs in population, that was struggling with just some of the basic attributes of community building. We were investing heavily right outside of the core and that this was an opportunity to put a stake in the ground and encourage an investment.

Tom Gerend:

Up until this point in time, we hadn't operated a streetcar since 1957. I imagine when you talk 20 years from now about looking back on Kansas City to the time before there was a streetcar, that's going to be hard for some people to believe it ever existed because we'll have lived with it for 20 years. I suspect we'll see really extensive investment and densification and urbanization of some of our corridors. I expect we'll see continued growth of the system in the two decades to follow. And I expect it's going to all lead to a culture that's more transit oriented in terms of how people have grown up with it, how they familiarize themselves to it and how they've utilized it in their day-to-day lives to get the things that they need to get to.

Tom Gerend:

Again, we have short memories. And even now when I show pictures in presentations to 2014 or 2013 pre-construction in the Crossroads or downtown, people are amazed at how far we've come in a relatively short period of time. I can only imagine 20 years from now that the transformation will be remarkable and it'll be for the better, and we'll have a much better Kansas City to show for it.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tom, thank you for all of the work that you're doing to bring this transportation system to Kansas City and just for the transformative impact that it's already having. I'm really excited to see where it goes from here. Thanks for your time today.

Tom Gerend:

Thank you.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Tom Gerend for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. More than transporting people, the streetcar is a connector. It connects communities throughout the city; it connects local artists, sports teams, retailers, and restaurants to residents and visitors; and it connects us to economic development opportunities. All of these contribute to a more vibrant and sustainable Kansas City.

Joe Close:

Country Club Bank is very proud to be a part of that economic development, having financed two of the projects along the streetcar line. Kudos to Tom, the Kansas City Streetcar Authority, the citizens of Kansas City and to all who have been involved in making this once-in-a-generation opportunity a reality. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, Member FDIC.