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Kansas City Abandons Light Rail; Australian Rapid Transit Projects In Development

Kansas City abandons light rail for regional commuter systemProposed Kansas City Light Rail Map

In November, Kansas City voters abandoned hope for a light rail system by a 44-56% margin. There had been several efforts over the past few years to build a variety of lines, led by community organizer Clay Chastain, who in 2006 won an endorsement from voters for a 27-mile rail system to run throughout the city. In 2008, however, the city council decided on a $1 billion 14-mile north-south line (shown in the plan to the right) that would be sponsored by a 3/8¢ sales tax; voters obviously weren’t interested.

But now the area’s Regional Transit Alliance has decided to replace its light rail plan with a commuter rail system that would run using diesel locomotives on existing tracks. The Kansas City Star reports that Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders sees the commuter rail system as more ambitious than the previous light rail plan:

“If we’re going to have a mass transit plan, it needs to be regional so that we move the largest number of people where they want to go… Bigger is better.”

The irony of Mr. Sanders’ statement is that while an investment in commuter rail may provide longer lines spreading further out into the region, it would also almost certainly mean fewer riders. The fact is that commuter rail systems, usually running at inconvenient frequencies and stopping at stations more likely to be surrounded by parking than dense housing, do not attract the kind of patronage that a game-changing light rail network would. And while commuter rail would improve the mobility of a small number of the region’s suburb-to-downtown commuters, it wouldn’t help much in getting people in the inner city around.

Perhaps it is true that the population in Kansas City is spread out enough that citizens of the region are unwilling to agree to a sales tax for a central city-only light rail network, but the commuter rail network for which they might settle will change the travel habits of fewer people than a light rail system would have.

Australian rapid transit projects – in the Gold Coast and in Sydney – up in the air because of Labor-Liberal political controversies

The Gold Coast, Australia’s sixth-largest city located just south of Brisbane in Queensland, is planning a 17-km light rail transit system that would run north-south along the city’s trademark coast and then west to the Pacific Motorway. The city is increasingly dense along the waterfront but lacks any major mass transit option. The project has been supported by Australia’s ruling center-left Labor Party, but recently the coalition of the conservative Liberal and National Parties that controls Queensland has veered back and forth about whether to support the project, putting its construction into jeopardy.

The problem is that neither the national government nor the Queensland state have indicated the appropriate willingness to direct the necessary hundreds of millions of Australian dollars that would be necessary to get the light rail line built, even though everyone seems to agree that the Gold Coast is in desperate need of alternative transport options.

In Sydney, a similar situation is playing out. Late last year, the New South Wales government announced that it would fund the construction of a $4.8 billion new CBD subway in the city’s downtown area. The project would begin construction in 2010 and be completed by 2015. Now that the state government has begun property acquisitions, however, some local Sydney politicians have expressed their discontent about the project’s massive price, suggesting that a better use of the funds would be in an expansion of the city’s light rail network. The national government, however, sees the CBD subway as the first stage of a massive new metro system that would run to the Northwest quadrant of the city and provide much-needed traffic relief.

As of now, both projects remain funded but obstacles are likely to stand in their way in the future.

Image above: Kansas City Light Rail network plan (abandoned), from kcrail.com

3 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Hello from Sydney, from a self-exiled American transit planner.

    Great to see you covering Australian issues, but I encourage you to avoid expressing much of an opinion about transit developments in Sydney, since this is a place where announced transit projects often incur significant green, pro-transit opposition.

    State government (which holds almost all of the power in the Australian system) is balkanised in the worst possible way — even worse than, say, the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s. The new metro has been set up in opposition to the old, established commuter rail operator, Cityrail, and instead of a reasoned public debate about which mode is best where, what’s occuring seems to be a raw political tug of war.

    Unlike the Brisbane-Gold Coast region of Queensland, Sydney lacks any centralized transit planning authority that could be a site for public consensus building and for the rational comparison of different modal options. For this reason, the state government tends to generate project proposals that have only the shallowest consensus behind them. As a result, announced rail projects are canceled so frequently that nobody really believes a project is happening until construction begins.

    The Sydney Morning Herald (smh.com) is the newspaper of record, and reasonably smart on these issues.

  • Midwesternboy

    I would also say that the regional KC plan isn’t as bad as you’re making it sound. I get why you like light rail — in principle — better than commuter rail. But I’m guessing you’ve never been to Kansas City. There are not so many people to move around downtown.

    Your grand vision is for denser walkable cities. I get that. But you can’t go from what Kansas City is now to what you want it to be without some steps in between. Unless you’ve got billions and billions of dollars to turn parking garages back into city blocks and build the urban paradise complete with schools that would attract people to live along these light rail lines.

    No one lives downtown. Anyone standing on a street corner on a typical day has driven there from the suburbs for work or play. If you put light rail there, you’ll be asking people to park their cars downtown and then get around town on a train. That doesn’t make much sense. Using an existing rail line is an inexpensive way to at least get people to ride a train. A train that gets them from where they live to where you want them to be.

    Once you do that, they’ll be on foot. Then you can convince them to get on a bus or a trolley. Maybe.

    Even in Charlotte the furthest stops on their light rail line are the busiest. They’re park and rides. People are using it as a commuter train.

  • DK

    Did you remove the post about Edward Glaeser’s article because you misread it, and jumped on him for it? When I clicked the link, I got a notification that it was not found. Deleting it won’t help your case, and I think you should still comment on it, and explain your error.

    Similar to how LeBron James trying to not let the video of him getting dunked on was available from other sources, the internet holds a record of everything, and I think it’d be best if you say what your error was, and then comment on Glaeser’s conclusion.

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