Kansas City may be moving full speed ahead with its streetcar extension study, but that doesn't mean the bus system is left behind.
In fact, planners say one key thread knitting together parts of the streetcar would be a new rapid-transit bus line along Prospect Avenue.
For a city where the Main Street and Troost Avenue MAX express lines are already popular with riders, Prospect is seen as the logical next step.
"We've heard a lot of positives about bringing the MAX to Prospect," said Danny O'Connor, planning director for the Area Transportation Authority.
He noted Prospect is the second most heavily traveled route after Troost, with about 6,000 riders every weekday.
Kansas City Councilman Jermaine Reed of the 3rd District said Prospect needs the MAX to build on other progress, like the new Blue Hills Business Center at 50th Street and Prospect, the Aldi grocery store under construction at 39th Street and Prospect, and the new East Patrol crime laboratory and police station planned for 27th Street and Prospect.
"If you have ridden the Troost MAX or Main Street MAX, you will understand that," Reed said. "From individuals I talk to on the Troost MAX, they are supportive of a Prospect MAX. It helps enhance their ability to get around faster."
Although streetcar enthusiasts are talking up extensions from Main Street to Waldo, and on 31st Street and Independence Avenue, Reed isn't coveting the streetcar for Prospect. He said the bus is already well used there, so it makes sense to upgrade that service over the next five years and use that to connect to the streetcar extensions, which might be built in 2019.
MAX means enhanced amenities such as frequent and faster service all day and into the night, covered transit stations rather than just a bus stop sign, and better lighting at stations with better passenger information with real-time signage. The buses also have wider windows and more space in the aisles for standees.
"It's not only the service but basically the quality of the experience," said Dick Jarrold, chief engineer for the ATA.
And the fare ($1.50 regular fare per trip) is the same as for the standard bus.
The idea for the Prospect MAX gained traction through a U.S. 71 transit study this year — one of its first recommendations was to pursue those bus rapid-transit amenities on Prospect.
O'Connor and Jarrold said that builds on the momentum from the Main Street and Troost MAX lines.
Main Street especially has seen a dramatic increase in ridership since MAX debuted there in July 2005. Since then, weekday ridership has risen 59 percent, from an average of 3,400 riders to 5,400 average daily riders.
The Troost MAX, which began in January 2011, has boosted ridership from 7,600 to 7,900 daily riders on weekdays and from 3,600 to 3,900 on Saturdays.
The Main Street MAX cost about $21 million and received about 80 percent of its funds from the federal government, Jarrold said. The Troost MAX cost about $31 million, with about the same percentage of federal funds.
Cost analysis is still underway for Prospect, but preliminary estimates are that it would cost between $40 million and $50 million because it would be longer, extending about nine miles from downtown to 75th Street and Prospect. Many supporters say it should be extended even farther south to Bannister Road to serve the new Cerner Corp. development planned for the former Bannister Mall site.
How to pay for it remains a big question, but ATA officials say the city's recent decision to bundle the Prospect MAX with the three potential streetcar extensions gave it a big boost and makes it more likely that both the streetcar and the bus can get federal funds.
"We felt the Prospect MAX could fare very well at the federal level in terms of a request for funding," Jarrold said.
Still, there will be a significant local cost to building out the streetcar and bus system. Any sales or property tax increase to help pay the cost would require voter approval. More information is likely to emerge in 2014.