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Kansas City Transportation to Rapidly Evolve in 2016

In March, Kansans and Missourians will be able to check out downtown’s new look and rhythm with the debut of streetcars and electronic kiosks with visitor-friendly information -- and Overland Park soon will offer skydiving in a wind tunnel.

by Rick Montgomery, The Kansas City Star / January 4, 2015
Kansas City, Mo.

(TNS) -- What 2016 holds in store for Kansas Citians will delight many downtown dwellers, keep political activists rapping on doors and make more than a few folks go ape.

About that last thing: Go Ape is the name of a coming attraction at Swope Park. If you’re into swinging through treetops with cables attached, then 2016 is your year.

But truly important stuff will emerge as well.

In March, Kansans and Missourians will have their chance to make known their choices for U.S. president. Around the same time, downtown’s look and rhythms will change with the debut of streetcars — which will take some getting used to, trust us — and electronic kiosks with visitor-friendly information.

And Overland Park soon will be attracting adventurers eager to try skydiving in a wind tunnel.

“Simulated skydiving,” said Overland Park spokesman Sean Reilly. “Who’d have thought?”

We might be asking that question a lot this year.

Moving along

Nobody called the emerging streetcar starter line “rapid transit.” You’ll know why when the downtown vehicles start carrying riders in early spring.

Consider them gleaming, quiet, stink-free buses moving at the rate of regular downtown traffic, only stopping more.

If they’re popular, the free electric carriers — city officials call them “pedestrian accelerators” — will be picking up and dropping off passengers every two or three blocks along a 2.2-mile route between the River Market and Union Station.

Like the cars and trucks around them, the streetcars will stop for red lights. They’ll have a slight edge when close to an intersection, where they can utilize an integrated smart system to keep a light green for a few seconds so the streetcars can pass through, and on some stretches they can pick up speed.

The launch date is still squishy.

“We’re going to have a soft opening when the system is ready, most likely in March” to allow users and surrounding motorists to get acquainted, said city spokesman Chris Hernandez. “You have a big party later on … when we want everyone to jump in.”

Expect that to happen on a weekend in April, he said.

Streetcars won’t be the only new arrivals to downtown in 2016.

Energy-efficient LED streetlights are poised to multiply, getting brighter or dimmer, depending on the darkness.

Video kiosks will appear at more than a dozen downtown locations, allowing pedestrians to check nearby restaurant deals or showtimes at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

The lights and kiosks will be among the first visual signs of a “Smart+Connected City” agreement announced in June by local officials working with corporate partners Cisco, Sprint and others.

The smart downtown concept relies on a new Wi-Fi network constructed and managed by Sprint. City leaders envision the technology ultimately detecting potential infrastructure weaknesses and communicating with police cruisers.

“Our goal is to be the most comprehensive smart city in North America,” Hernandez said.

With the recent opening of 25-story One Light luxury apartments downtown, the Cordish Cos. developers also will begin construction of a partner residential tower, 24-story Two Light, at Walnut Street and Truman Road.

State of the states

You’ve heard that the Sunflower State has some budget challenges? Well, you’ll hear more of that in 2016.

Tempers in Topeka may cool only a tad from the searing levels of recent years. Gov. Sam Brownback won’t be on the November ballot. And most of the bloodletting over this year’s balance sheets occurred in the spring of 2015, when the Kansas Legislature hammered out a two-year budget.

“Since we’re heading into the second year of a two-year budget, it’s going to be a time of focusing on adjustments rather than seismic change,” said University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis. “What you are going to see is a continual scraping of the bottom.”

Some of the attempted adjustments could pit state-funded operations against one another.

For example, Rep. John Rubin of Shawnee is among conservative Republicans vowing to shave education dollars to boost manpower in public safety agencies such as the Kansas Highway Patrol, which has lost 100 slots for troopers in the last decade.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Supreme Court has set a spring date for oral arguments in a case alleging that school funding statewide is neither equitable nor adequate.

The court could order the legislature to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on public education. Believing that the judiciary has no business budgeting for schools, some lawmakers will want to ignore such a ruling.

Said Loomis: “If the court demands a quick turnaround, it could lead to a constitutional crisis.”

As for Missouri, 2016 could become a year when citizens push their way onto the ballot.

Political ethics reform — from limiting campaign contributions to policing lobbyist activities — may run into the usual roadblocks in Jefferson City. But a slew of referendum proposals could await voters at the polls later this year.

“Real movement on these issues in 2016 may be through ballot initiatives, which will have the most teeth,” said Robynn Kuhlmann, assistant professor of government at the University of Central Missouri.

Kuhlmann also expects student protests at the University of Missouri and campuses nationwide to resurface as spring approaches: “Not only will the discussion be about race relations, but also how students are treated, what they are taught and where funding is allocated.

“Like the issue of ethics reform,” she said, “Mizzou also has layers of issues it has faced and will continue to have to deal with in 2016.”

Efforts to legalize marijuana and boost the minimum wage will continue to gather steam, especially in referendum-happy Missouri.

Local attractions

You can expect a variety of attractions to roll out in 2016:

  • Springtime marks the debut of part of the long-awaited in the 1800 block of the Paseo.

The center’s ground floor will open with an exhibit on the 12-year period during which every major league baseball team integrated, ending with the Boston Red Sox in 1959.

Located near the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the Historic 18th & Vine Jazz District, the research library ultimately will contain 40,000 square feet of archives, displays and educational space.

Museum president Bob Kendrick said the facility was a dream of the iconic O’Neil, who died in 2006: “He still looms large in this city and he’ll continue to loom large.”

  • On the soccer front, the minor league Swope Park Rangers kick off their inaugural season in March. The feeder team to Sporting KC will compete in 30 games in the United Soccer League.

Playing its home matches at Swope Soccer Village, the Rangers are the 30th team to join the USL in the league’s six-year history.

Since you’ll be in the park, swing by the southeast forested area and check out Go Ape, a treetop adventure course opening this spring. Think rope bridges, Tarzan swings, zip lines and obstacles. Prices set by the private company range from $38 to $58.

  • Though Jackson County executive Mike Sanders is returning to private life, one of his big ideas will be sprouting later this year in the form of a recreational trail on the former Rock Island railbed.

It may take a number of years to finish. But when done, the 17.7-mile biking and hiking path will finally connect Kansas City with the Katy Trail at Pleasant Hill.

That would provide cyclists the final leg of a route spanning the width of Missouri.

Construction of the new trail will start when the county seals the details on a $52 million purchase of the rail corridor from Union Pacific, but it’s unlikely much or any of the corridor will open this year. Now trashy and overgrown, the corridor runs from the Leeds district to south Lee’s Summit.

  • Sometime in the coming month, an called iFly is scheduled open at 10975 Metcalf Ave. in Overland Park.

The private venture had city planners puzzling over drawings of an odd-shaped structure wrapped around a vertical wind tunnel. City Council members asked: If iFly should fold because nobody really wants a simulated free-fall experience without a parachute, who’s ever going to buy the facility?

Social media replied with a fury.

“Our Facebook page lit up,” said Reilly, the city spokesman. “Some were saying, ‘If you don’t want it in Overland Park, we’ll move iFly to our city.’ ”

Odd building approved.

Decisions, decisions

It’s been eight months since the first major candidate officially entered the 2016 presidential race, and at least nine wannabes — Republicans and Democrats — already have withdrawn.

So when will folks actually start voting?

That process is yet a month from getting underway. On Feb. 1, Iowans will assemble for the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.

Then ballots begin to fly.

Because a dozen Republican candidates remain for now, the field is apt to still be unsettled when Kansas and Missouri voters cast lots in March.

Mark these dates and hold on for what’s apt to be a wild ride:

  • March 5: Kansas presidential caucuses.
  • March 15: Missouri presidential primary.
  • April 5: Kansas City voters decide whether to retain the city’s 1 percent earnings tax for five more years.
  • Aug. 2: Primary elections in both states. Missouri’s vote will determine matchups in crucial statewide races, including the one for the office of outgoing Gov. Jay Nixon.
  • Nov. 8: General election.

The outcome in the White House will depend on how badly Americans want to change parties — and on changes that happen from here on.

Will Republican Donald Trump, the unabashed anti-politician, still be amassing crowds on the Fourth of July? Will an improved economy and low gasoline prices help the party in power, as conventional wisdom holds, or will terrorism overseas and at home outweigh all else?

“You never know,” conceded Daniel Ponder, political science professor at Drury University in Springfield, Mo. “We should be looking at the current polls only as a thermometer of what Americans are thinking right now, not how they’ll vote in 11 months. …

“In politics, the time between the first of the year and November is an eternity.”

©2016 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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