Hoping to push forward with new transit connections as quickly as possible, officials in the Kansas City metropolitan area are moving forward with a plan for a huge network of commuter rail lines that they say can be ready for operations in just two years. But with proponents of a long-proposed light rail system still angling for investment on their side and with no funding yet allocated for either project, the future of fixed-guideway public transportation in the region remains up in the air.
Missouri’s western metropolis has a history of public interest in better transit, but the city has yet to invest in new rail lines because of government confusion and voter discontent — over the years, eight serious rail proposals have been met with inaction. In 2006, voters approved a 27-mile light rail line, only to reject necessary funding for a streamlined proposal in 2008. Earlier this year, the Regional Transit Alliance declined continued involvement in the push for light rail, arguing that a metro-wide commuter rail plan would be more effective and more politically salient. But Clay Chastain, the non-local who has been the most active promoter of light rail, has recently pushed for another ballot provision for the system and he now has a new $2 billion project in the works. Nothing is funded.
Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders released early details of his regional rail plan this weekend. Kansas City is located principally in Jackson County, though also in the surrounding Clay, Cass, and Platte Counties. The rail concept, with 144 miles of rail service, would cost about one billion dollars to implement six radial lines extending from Union Station downtown to areas around the region, including into the state of Kansas. Though the proposal is very preliminary, Mr. Sanders appears to envision slight upgrades of existing tracks, building bypass tracks where necessary but spending most of the money on implementing new stations and buying trains.
Spending just $1 billion on so many miles of track is not going to provide the region with a very effective system, however. What could be realistically implemented: a few rush hour DMU trains, operating in one direction on each line. Despite Mr. Sanders’ assessment that “This is the most cutting-edge, cost-effective transit plan in America,” very few people in the metropolitan area are going to be using these commuter trains. According to early studies, the system could attract 20,000 to 25,000 riders a day — in a metropolitan area of more than two million.
Fortunately for Jackson County, Mr. Sanders expects Washington to cover the entire construction cost of the proposal, using Stimulus funds. Conveniently, the federal government is also being asked to sponsor a new streetcar line between Union Station and the downtown office core that would allow commuters a better connection to their jobs after arriving at the Kansas City terminus. Operations for the regional rail network might be funded using a yet-to-be-approved 1/8¢ sales tax.
For all of Mr. Chastain’s brashness, he has a better plan for the region’s future. A light rail line in the urban core would likely attract more riders and do far more to promote densification and reuse of existing neighborhoods. The regional rail proposal, while not a bad concept, should not be a top priority for the national government, as it will offer inconvenient, infrequent service to few passengers and do nothing to contain the region’s sprawl. Worse, it seems unfair for the Department of Transportation to allocate billions of dollars to a region whose voters have been so reluctant to invest in their own transportation systems, when the citizens of other cities have been far more proactive in moving towards a more sustainable transportation system — and have taxed themselves to do so.
Image above: Proposed Kansas City commuter rail network, from KansasCity.com