Kansas City Up for LRT Referendum Again?

Activist expects to fight for LRT on this year’s fall ballot

There are few individuals who have been fighting so hard for transit improvements as Clay Chastain, who has made his mark over the years on Kansas City. In 2006, he almost single-handedly organized a referendum for a 27-mile light rail line through the city, and won, surprising the city council, which had done very little to support his effort. Lacking funding for or interest in the project, the city council repealed the plan in 2007. But Mr. Chastain struck back, putting a referendum for a 3/8¢ sales tax on the ballot last November, with the new goal of building a $1 billion north-south rail line. Nevertheless, citizens of the city were some of the only in the country to reject transit funding on election night 2008, and by the middle of February, Kansas City’s Regional Transit Alliance had abandoned the light rail plan for a commuter system, under the assumption that such a network would be more pleasing to the area’s population.

Mr. Chastain is currently suing the city for its abandonment of the plan approved by voters in 2006, but even if he wins, he still lacks a funding source to make his project viable.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Clay Chastain is back, ready to play the game again and get light rail rolling in his city no matter the cost. He’ll be gathering signatures beginning in mid-May with the goal of putting a 9-mile light rail plan on the ballot this November. The new referendum would also support a 3/8¢ sales tax and build a $750 million line running from the Kansas City Zoo to the City Market, via Country Club Plaza. BRT routes would connect to the line at its northern terminus. His plan also suggests that gondolas be built between Union Station – on the proposed LRT route – and the Liberty Memorial. This plan is similar to the proposal put before voters last year, though that project extended 5 miles more into the northern suburbs of the city, across the Missouri River, towards the airport.

I have my doubts about whether the city’s citizens have a change of heart about a plan that’s not much different from what they rejected last year. But the project is a good one, providing connections to the city’s biggest destinations and – with the exception of those crazy gondolas – not a Springfield Monorail fantasy. Kansas City’s citizens would be getting a good deal if they agreed to go forward with the plan.

Yet the city council’s lack of support for the project – really an expression of their manifest disapproval for the independence streak of Mr. Chastain – doesn’t help matters much and certainly won’t improve the transit services in their metropolis. It would be helpful for everyone involved to simply join forces in favor of better transit. This political conflict is pointless.

9 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Adirondacker

    Gondolas? Wouldn’t vaporetto be faster and cheaper?

  • I should have been clear. By gondola, Chastain’s not referring to a Venician water boat… he means a gondola lift, which is an aerial tram.

  • Jasper

    I’m not convinced Chastain is doing transit any favors. If he knew how to go about things and work with others, he could have had the backing of the city’s transit agencies and council.

  • BLambert

    Just FYI, the link to your previous post about LRT abandonment in favor of commuter rail has an extra “http//” in the href.

  • Kevin

    Your facts are wrong. The City Council repealed the 2006 initiative b/c it was wildly infeasible and would have taken 40% of the bus service’s funding. The 2008 election was an initiative of the City, not Chastain. It failed as well, due to the politics of KCMO, as well as it being too expensive relative to the amount of service.

    Chastain does not even live in Kansas City, and is part of the problem – not the solution. He should not be hailed as some citizen-hero.

  • Kevin -
    The 2006 initiative was “infeasible” because the city was uninterested in pushing for an ambitious transit system, and searching for the corresponding revenue that would be necessary to build it. While it’s easy to lay blame on Chastain because he doesn’t live in the city, his initiative is what made even thinking about light rail in the city possible. We see what happens when he gets out of the game: the RTA simply decides that light rail isn’t worth it.

  • Kevin

    You have a strange reading on this issue.
    The 2006 initiative was infeasible b/c it allocated 3/8c for a project that would take at least 1c of sales tax; it anticipated a 50% federal match that the line would never qualify for; it specified stop locations that were inflexible; it closed a major street in the City; and on and on…
    The “City” has been interested in pushing for transit for 2 decades, but the voters continue to reject it. Could they be more strategic? Yes. Could they do better education? Yes. But, the bottom line is that the voters still haven’t voted for anything that’s a tax increase for transit.

  • Adam

    Kevin-
    You make a lot of assertions there. For those of us not from KCMO, could you give us some links so we can see what evidence you’re using to make those assertions?

    For example you say,
    “The 2006 initiative was infeasible b/c it allocated 3/8c for a project that would take at least 1c of sales tax”

    Why? Was there a study saying a 1c tax was needed? Charlotte has been able to implement its light rail system with a half cent tax, so 3/8th doesn’t seem totally unreasonable.

    “it anticipated a 50% federal match that the line would never qualify for”
    Why? What was wrong with the plan that it wouldn’t qualify for it? Seems like as long as a light rail plan follows the usual procedure for planning, funding, and construction it more often then not qualifies. Now whether the federal funding is actually there may be another story given the recent history of transit funding in this country. But I’d like to know why you think it wouldn’t even qualify for the federal funds. Thanks.

  • Kevin

    Charlotte has 1/2 cent over all of Mecklenburg County – the KC line was 3/8 cent only in KC, MO – about 1/2 the population of Mecklenburg County. And, it was for a line of over 30 miles in length. Do the math – it just doesn’t work. And, it assumed a 50% federal match. The 2008 plan was just recently shown (all sorts of articles to this effect) that it would not have met federal criteria for a match, for a line of about 12 miles, through the heart of the City.
    Reality is that there is only about a 6 mile segment in KC right now that would meet federal criteria for ridership & density, perhaps 8 or 9 miles if extended to the east in the right location. The 2006 plan included going to the airport, which is 20 miles from downtown in a low-density, very low ridership environment. That piece alone would cost over $1B and would never meet FTA requirements.
    A little bit of research into the various plans and debate from fall of 2006 through summer of 2007, especially on KC Star website or kclightrail.com would reveal the information.

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