KC Streetcar will start building riverfront extension in 2023, but Main Street work is far from done
Construction on a northbound streetcar extension, from River Market to the Berkeley Riverfront, will begin next year. But there's still plenty of work left to do on the route to UMKC, with an expected open date in 2025.
By the end of 2022, the KC Streetcar will have laid approximately a quarter of the tracks needed to extend the route southward toward UMKC from Union Station.
And in the new year, the streetcar plans to begin construction on a new three-quarter-mile extension from River Market to the Berkeley Riverfront.
Both the 3.5-mile southbound extension and the 0.75-mile northbound line are expected to be completed around the same time in 2025 — tripling the size of the current streetcar service.
“That’s what we’re aiming for,” says KC Streetcar spokeswoman Donna Mandelbaum. “And 2025 is our year. We even have a hashtag: #ridein2025.”
The $350 million Main Street Extension got underway in fall 2020 with private utility upgrades and repairs, which caused lane closures, detours and confusion for motorists along Main Street. All of the below-ground work along the southbound route is completed now.
The Riverfront Extension is expected to add another $40 million to the overall cost.
Where streetcar work is happening now
The actual rails for the Main Street Extension began to go into the ground this past April, and currently, large chunks of the installation work is focused near Armour Boulevard.
Mandelbaum says that crews have likely done their last “rail pull” for the year on Main Street, where workers drag the 400-foot-long rail sections down the street to their next spot. It requires blocking streets and using police to control traffic.
“We try to do it when everyone’s sleeping and before they go to work,” she says. “We do it under the cover of night when we’re not really bothering anybody.”
Despite the progress, the detours and pylons remain -- causing frustrations for drivers and business owners.
Matt Kozaat, the owner of OG Smoke Shop near 35th and Main, says the project is good for the city but has caused troubles for his business. The construction made it harder for customers to find his parking lot.
“What they’re doing is good,” Kozaat says. “But actually, it does affect my business. There’s a problem getting in and out. They keep blocking that entrance.”
Kozaat is not sure how long he can sustain his business while the roadwork goes on around him. While he gets occasional email alerts, he feels like there’s not been enough communication from the construction companies or KC Streetcar.
“I’m not against it,” he says. “But it does hurt us. I still have to pay rent.”
Tom Gerend, KC Streetcar’s executive director, says the complaints are not lost on him.
“We understand that there's an inconvenience with construction,” he says. “That's part of the reality of building 50 year investments in the core of the city where we have a lot going on.”
Gerend says there’s still much work yet to be done.
“It feels like a long time,” Gerend says, “but before you know it, we'll be out of the ground and done with construction and we'll be reaping the benefits of it.”
Workers have been busy pouring foundations for the supports that hold the streetcar powerlines. Just 42 of 344 supports are complete right now, while one of the route’s 15 new station stops has already been installed at 27th Street.
Additionally, new sidewalks have been added on the east side of Main Street between Pershing Road and Grand Avenue. And crews added a mobility lane between Pershing Road and 27th Street to provide passage for cyclists and pedestrians.
Mandelbaum says 22% of the extension route will feature dedicated transit lanes, where cars don’t share the road with the streetcar.
What comes next
The Riverfront Extension project is expected to break ground in mid-2023. Motorists will be relieved to know there won’t be much, if any, underground work required for that leg of the project.
Much of that route will lie on the existing Grand Avenue Viaduct Bridge, while the other half will be built in Berkley Riverfront Park, where key utilities have already been installed or upgraded.
Soon, the KC Streetcar will add eight more vehicles to their fleet, bringing the total number to 14. And they’re completing a new warehouse to accommodate the additions.
The current maintenance and older warehouse will be renovated into a new operations center, where KC Streetcar can fit more employees.
Gerend says they plan to add 50 more employees over the coming years, and triple the size of their physical infrastructure.
He says he marvels watching the new rails go into the ground, while remembering what it was like when crews pulled up the original rails from the city’s first streetcar system.
“You can stand at Union Station at our current terminus and look south, and you can see new track going up to Main Street hill,” Gerend says. “It's not lost on anybody, the symbolism in that and really is profound in the permanence of what we're doing to reconnect our city for a long time to come.”