Op Ed
January 26, 2007

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How Chastain’s light rail plan affects you
by Wayne Flaherty

Kansas City’s recently passed light rail initiative has already had, and will continue to have, a profound effect on Kansans and especially Johnson County. Some Kansans will believe, “Let the Missourians who voted for it, pay for it.” On the surface, that seems like a good idea — but it’s an idea with a problem. The Missouri voters approved the plan with visions of shiny trains whizzing around their city completely oblivious to the reality about to confront them. It is that reality that the citizens of Kansas must also face.

Fortunately, we have a clear example of another light rail project to show us the reality we face — the Hiawatha light rail project in Minneapolis, all of which is in Hennipen County. The 11.6-mile line ended up costing a total of $715 million for a construction cost of $61.6 million per mile. (NOTE: A current estimate for KC’s Chastain line is $35 million per mile. The true cost of light rail reaches as high as the $100 million per mile for the 2003 proposed Center Line Project in Orange County, CA.) Recently, the feds dropped a $10 million per year subsidy of the Hiawatha line. Even with a fare box income of $1 million more than predicted, fares only account for 30% of the line’s $20 million per year operating expense. (A St. Louis fare box revenue of 28% of operating costs is one of the highest percentages in the country.) KC’s light rail is 2 years from the start of its funding tax, 7 years from start of construction and 3 years to complete. Don’t expect to see KC’s light rail trains running before the year 2017.

Where does Johnson County come in on the Chastain rail plan? Why, with regional funding, of course.

In Minneapolis its Hiawatha light rail is losing so much money that Hennipen County wants a region-wide sales tax (http://www.startribune.com/462/story/913824.html) to cover the costs. They justify their action by claiming all the burden should not be on them since they paid for what others are using. Their argument fails to hold water since all of the construction costs were paid by federal and state taxpayers, and half the operating costs are paid by state taxpayers. Like the KC rail plan, not one voter outside of the county had a say in whether to build the Hennepin County light rail, where to put it or how to finance it.

The dreamers in Minneapolis got their wish and now they want someone else to help pay for it. KC voters got their wish and when financial reality finally sets in, they will want someone else to help pay for their dream — and that someone is you. When they wanted to save Union Station (Bi-State I) they turned to surrounding counties. When they wanted to rebuild their stadiums and fund new arts projects (Bi-State II) they turned to surrounding counties (Johnson County would have put in $440 million and got back $40 million.)

When asked about the light rail tax, KC mayoral candidate, Alvin Brooks said, “Voters may or may not have realized this tax was to be used for a regional transit plan.” (KC Star, 01/21/07) (NOTE: Brooks did not explain how a KCMO vote for an east side light rail line suddenly became part of a regional transit plan that does not provide any connection possibilities with Kansas riders.) KC mayoral candidate Chuck Eddy said, “When I crafted the current 3/8 cent sales tax ballot issue, we placed a sunset provision for this tax to expire. Then the regional Smart Moves tax would replace this tax.” (KC Star, 01/21/07) Clearly, the intention was that the ATA would not lose any funding when the tax ended; they would just use Kansas money from the regional transit fund.

MARC (Mid America Regional Council) now finds itself third in line in KCMO for taxes — behind the KCATA and light rail, a position that has moved regional transit to the back burner for now. I predict it will be resurrected as a way to tap into Johnson County’s tax base to finance KC’s light rail. Missouri SB 825 became law last year. SB 825 is the Smart Moves bill that is a duplicate of Kansas‚ HB 2751. Both are required to create a regional funding mechanism for transit. As happened in Missouri, “regional funding” can be created without a single vote by any citizen. It all happens in the legislature. In addition to creating new taxing mechanisms, HB 2751 will make MARC the de facto regional government, adding another level of government populated by unelected people.

NOTE: All MARC board members are appointed and no mechanism exists for voters to remove a board member. The fact they must hold elected office fails to provide any direct accountability to the voters. You cannot remove a city council member because of something they did as a MARC board member. Even if every board member is honest and conscientious the fact remains, they are not accountable to the citizens they purport to serve.

Remember what’s happening in Minneapolis and what KCMO Councilmen Brooks and Eddy said. They are already looking west across the state line for a financial bailout — and they’re looking straight at you!

Wayne Flaherty lives in Overland Park, KS.


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