Commuter Rail Kansas City

Kansas City Envisions 150-Mile Regional Commuter Rail System

Kansas City Commuter Rail Proposal Map» Project could be built on the “cheap” as it would use existing tracks; resistance likely from activists who are more excited by a proposed inner-city light rail system.

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

Bus Kansas City

Kansas City Begins Construction of Troost Avenue BRT

Troost Corridor BRTProject would be city’s second rapid bus line and is sponsored by federal Small Start funds.

Next month, Kansas City will begin construction on its second bus rapid transit line, to run 13 miles from downtown to 95th Street, mostly along Troost Avenue. Costing about $30 million, the effort will modestly improve public transportation along the corridor, whose buses currently carry about 8,000 passengers a day. New buses will begin using the route next fall, after a bridge is replaced over Brush Creek near Country Club Plaza.

Kansas City opened its first MAX BRT line a couple of years ago along the 5-mile Main Street corridor between Country Club Plaza and downtown. That line has proven successful because of a concerted effort to provide as high quality a bus service as possible. Stations are glassy and have identifiable signs and names; they also all provide easily comprehensible route maps and next bus information. These are all features that should be standard on regular bus lines, but which are typically considered too expensive for U.S. transit agencies to include on anything other than “BRT” routes.

Ironically, one thing the existing MAX line is not, however, is particularly fast — the short route still requires 17 minutes for customers to traverse because buses aren’t separated from automobile traffic and the route includes 22 stops, hardly a time saver.

The new route along Troost, which will mimic most of the features of the Main Street line, won’t be too quick either, with 31 stations on the 13-mile corridor. Yet considering that it takes buses more than an hour to make the trip today, any improvement will be exciting to the city’s transit users. The Troost route is the city’s densest corridor, and therefore most likely to benefit from this investment. Buses will run every ten minutes throughout the day. The line received an 80% federal Small Starts funding commitment last year, allowing the city to commit to the project while investing very few of its funds.

The project won’t do much to extinguish the hopes of light rail promoter Clay Chastain, whose plan for a new 9-mile route may make the ballot this fall. That effort would result in truly significant improvements for transit in the city, notably because it will speed trip times. The Troost BRT, on the other hand, will make riding the bus nicer, but not necessarily more convenient.

Image above: Troost BRT map, from KCATA

Kansas City Light Rail

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.

Australia Commuter Rail Gold Coast Australia Kansas City Light Rail Metro Rail Sydney

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