November 17, 2006


Babbit-like minds face the will of the people
by Patrick Dobson

The Kansas City City Council will scotch the idea of light rail. As sure as Kansas Citians wear tires out on the interstate, the council will trump the will of the people.

The reasons are simple. None of the real power players want light rail, particularly if it came from Clay Chastain. That Chastain made it happen on the seventh try hurts enough. But that the people spoke over the noise of Kansas City power hurts even worse. And if there’s anything that power hates, it’s being shown who pays for the suits, suites and club memberships.

Going into the election, the council, the Mid-America Regional Council, the Regional Transit Alliance, and scores of realtors, developers, development lawyers and construction companies gave Chastain’s proposal no credibility. Reading the tea leaves and the outcomes of focus groups and public hearings, they thought the people would feel the same way they did: Chastain’s idea was sheer buffoonery. It was, after all, produced by the same man the business and political elite has played a chump since he got caught throwing construction debris into the trashcans of a Midtown carwash during his run for mayor in the 1990s.

Everyone in leadership at the city has already issued dark statements regarding light rail’s chances. In the few days since the election, the public has been fed excuses from it costs too much money to it’s never going to work. It all guarantees that what Kansas Citians hear from the city about the future of light rail will be negative.

The people, as a whole, have told the city and its business core what they want and need. Leaders are supposed to lead, that’s sure. But more importantly, elected officials are supposed to be servants of the people. Not pursuing light rail with all the enthusiasm of a new TIF or tax abatement project will be negligent. But Kansas City’s political leaders aren’t servants of the people, no matter what they say. Our elected officials have other masters.

Developers and business see only one way to do development in this town — the same way since after World War II: open up new land for development and depend on the car to get people back and forth. Then build more highways through older, ethnic, and black neighborhoods to facilitate getting suburban dwellers around and building more plowed-ground development. The people invested in this way of doing business — developers, their lawyers, real estate agents, banks and construction companies — depend on the city council and the mayor to insure things do not change.

And that is light rail’s problem. Laying hard rail means looking at city spaces a whole new way. It means development will have to shift from high-margin suburban land to lower-margin but longer-term investment along the line. Such a change opens the door to a whole new set of entrepreneurs, investors and corporations.

There are ample examples in places like Denver, Atlanta and St. Louis. Development around fixed-transit accesses is something few have any idea about in a town whose future has rested on building redundant infrastructure planned to be obsolete with the passage of a few years. In Atlanta, the MARTA system has sparked hotel, retail and commercial development at an overwhelming majority of its stations. Granted, MARTA is heavy rail, but the concept is the same as Chastain’s light rail plan — put the line through the highest density areas. Have radiating bus service to each stop, and make sure that the system runs reliably, and is safe and clean.

Denver is seeing the same results with the RTD’s light rail. Formerly dying parts of the inner city now see new life. St. Louis’s Metro is doing with its lines what decades of enterprise zones could not. It has spurred development and increases in population around the line, even as the rest of the city loses population. Moreover, some sentience is returning to East St. Louis around where the line crosses the Mississippi.

Now, here’s the kicker: It seems from these cities’ experience that there’s enough for everybody. Sprawl in all three cities grows unabated. Atlanta, with over four million people spreads like butter on a plate. Denver keeps moving out onto the plains to the east, and growth along the Front Range is robust as ever. And new suburban development keeps moving west from St. Louis. Could Kansas City keep sprawling and remake its development possibilities?

Probably. But the plodding, Babbit-like mind that dominates Kansas City political, civic and corporate establishments refuses to see it. Or, more likely, it wants to keep the whole pie to itself — screw Kansas Citians and any new faces wanting to get in on the game.

Because of this, we will certainly hear about how much it takes to subsidize light rail, with nary a breath about how much federal, state and local money it takes to build new subdivisions, highways and infrastructure to support both. The current transit system won’t have taxpayer support. Poor people will be in danger of not getting to their business and corporate masters on time. The sky will fall and we won’t be able to drive through Penn Valley Park.

It will all be the fault of Chastain’s light rail and his damn gondolas.

In the meantime, we can depend on MARC and the Regional Transit Alliance to heap the same cold servings of focus group and public hearing frou-frou that they have fed us for years. Go slow, do it right. Go slower. More hearings. More public input. More committee meetings…

The one light in all this is the people’s will. Light rail was only part of what we told our corporate, money and political elite on Election Day. The message was simple enough for even the most unimaginative gray flannel suits and corporate entranced elected officials: Get off your asses and build a decent mass transit system for this town.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at


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