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KC Streetcar Line to Link Important Downtown Districts

By Jenny Jones

A project team overcomes a dense urban environment to develop a new streetcar line through downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

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The new streetcar line in Kansas City, Missouri, will extend 2.2 mi through the city’s downtown, connecting business and entertainment districts. HDR, Inc.

January 7, 2014—For years, officials in Kansas City, Missouri, have tried to expand the city's public transportation system to include rail, but funding, politics, and other hurdles have always stood in the way. Now, construction is poised to begin on a new 2.2 mi long streetcar line that will run through the city's downtown, connecting major employment areas with arts and entertainment districts. But developing a streetcar line within an existing city center comes with a host of engineering and construction challenges—challenges that the project team and city officials are resolving through ongoing communication and thoughtful planning.

The Kansas City Downtown Streetcarline will extend north from Union Station along Main Street—past nearby performing arts and convention centers and through the city's revitalized Power & Light District—to the historic City Market, where it will loop around and head south along the other side of Main Street. The tracks will be embedded within the existing road and will support the operation of three cars traveling 10 minutes apart. An overhead electrical line will extend the length of the project to power to the cars, which will move in sync with traffic, obeying stop signs and traffic signals just as buses do. Passengers will board and disembark the streetcars at one of 16 stops that are being constructed along the route. A streetcar storage and maintenance facility is also being constructed as part of the project—a starter line for what is expected to eventually be a more than 12 mi long streetcar system through Kansas City.

The route of the starter line was determined in 2011 during the alternatives analysis phase of the project. Mid-America Regional Council, an association of city and county governments and the metropolitan planning organization for the bistate Kansas City region, hired HDR Inc.—a global architecture, engineering, and construction firm headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, with an office in Kansas City, Missouri—to evaluate the alternatives. Following that analysis, the city retained HDR to perform advanced conceptual engineering, conduct an environmental impact analysis, and select a program manager for the project before then selecting the firm to complete the final design. Final design began last January and reached 100 percent completion in December.

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The streetcar stops will have sloped ramps at either end, raising the sidewalk to the same elevation as the streetcars in order to provide level boarding for all passengers. HDR, Inc.

Construction of the line is slated to begin in February, and KC Streetcar Constructors are serving as the construction manager-at-risk on the project. KC Streetcar Constructors is a joint venture of the construction firms Herzog Contracting Corporation, based in St. Joseph, Missouri, and Stacy and Witbeck Inc., headquartered in Alameda, California.

The project is being funded in part by Federal Transit Administration grants and therefore is subject to the requirements of the federal Buy America Act. As a result, the project will include a relatively new type of track manufactured by ArcelorMittal, a rail manufacturing firm based in Steelton, Pennsylvania. Known as 112 TRAM, the block-rail track has a narrower flangeway than a conventional girder rail, making it safer for cyclists and such narrow-tired vehicles as mopeds to drive over the tracks, explains Luke Olson, P.E., the final design project manager for HDR. Crews will excavate a portion of the existing asphalt road to a depth of 24 in. and then install 12 in. of rock before laying the tracks. Twelve inches of concrete will then be placed around the tracks, says Andy Auxier, the senior project manager for KC Streetcar Constructors. "We'll pull up the asphalt, and it will be poured back in concrete for just the width of the track," Auxier says.

Many of the existing utility lines beneath the road will be upgraded and relocated as part of the project. Engineers conducted extensive surveys of the water and gas lines to determine which needed to be repaired and relocated. "For access reasons, a lot of the utilities, both public and private, especially those that carry water or are pressurized, will be relocated outside of the track slab that supports the rails," Olson explains. "Otherwise, if the public works department wanted to add water service to a building and the line was underneath the track, they would have to shut down the streetcar line in order to dig underneath the track and make their connection." Furthermore, the water lines must be repaired and relocated to ensure a line break doesn't undermine the structural integrity of the streetcar track. "You don't want those breaks to occur once you're in revenue service, so figuring out which lines need to be upgraded or relocated is an important step," Olson says.

Another significant and ongoing consideration is the involvement of the community—most notably the owners of the buildings and businesses that line the streetcar route. Communicating with the stakeholders on a regular basis is imperative to ensure the project's design and construction does not significantly disrupt their operations too much, Olson says. "It's not like in a rural area where you might have a meeting in a bedroom community, and people come and give you their input," Olson explains. "You have to go knock on the doors of the businesses downtown and talk to the key folks to really understand what their needs are, when they get their deliveries, and those sorts of things." 

Open communication is particularly important when it comes to the location and design of the streetcar stops. The stops will be located 1 ft higher than the adjacent sidewalks to create level boarding with the streetcars and accommodate passengers with disabilities as they board and disembark the streetcars. But raising the stops presented a challenge because the sidewalks had to remain at their existing elevations—level with the doorways of the buildings that line the streetcar route. To maintain the existing width of the sidewalks, engineers located the stops—each approximately 70 ft long and 8 ft wide—within the existing and proposed parking lanes along either side of the street. Then they addressed the elevation difference by incorporating 15 to 20 ft long ramps at either end of each stop, gradually sloping them to meet the sidewalk elevation, Olson says. "Fitting the stops in is always a challenge because you have a lot of constraints," he says. "You have the existing grade of the roadway, which you really can't change a lot, and then at the back of the sidewalk, you have buildings and you can't change their elevations." To ensure the stops won't interfere with the view to and from the businesses, the shelters will feature a great deal of glass.

The constraints of the urban environment also pose challenges when it comes to locating the poles that will support the electrical lines that will power the streetcars and finding a suitable location for the streetcar storage and maintenance facility. The team is overcoming those issues by avoiding all of the underground utilities that would otherwise interfere with the foundations of the streetcar utility poles and by incorporating retaining walls and other stabilization technologies to improve the site of the storage and maintenance facility near City Market. "Streetcars aren't buses, so they can't just complete their route and then drive 5 to 10 miles to a facility in some industrial park," Olson says. "We have to find a location that's close to our alignment. That was certainly a challenge on this project as it is on all of these types of projects."

While many of the project challenges have been addressed, construction will present additional challenges as the team moves from one end of the city to the other. "We're constantly moving as we build this project, and so we're constantly planning as to how we're going to keep access for people and businesses," Auxier says. "It's ever-changing throughout the construction process. From our perspective, that's the biggest challenge." Construction is expected to be completed in early fall 2015; the city will then perform safety and commissioning checks before beginning revenue service, which is expected to begin no sooner than December of 2015.

Once completed, the project is expected to help spur additional growth and development in downtown Kansas City. "It's going to help create this environment that will allow folks who live or work or who just want to play and be entertained within that zone to move really easily from activity area to activity area," says David Vozzolo, the principal in charge and program manager for HDR during the project's conceptual engineering and environmental impact phases. "It's the classic connecting the dots, and it's going to help the city attract new investments and more people downtown."


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