publisher's note
October 20, 2006



Sigh…Chastain is all we got
by Bruce Rodgers

When Clay Chastain sauntered back to KC from his hangout in Bedford, VA earlier this year about the only people — outside of family here — who welcomed his return were two Kansas City Star employees, editorial cartoonist Lee Judge and gossip columnist Hearne Christopher Jr.

Judge had material for a new round of Chastain cartoons — Chastain always appreciated Judge’s work, scattering Judge’s cartoons throughout is self-published autobiography, released, most people thought, to the promise that he was leaving KC “for good.”

Christopher was likely near the top of the list of people to call when Chastain hit town. Christopher welcomed the call. “The Clay Man” as Christopher sometimes calls him, is always good for a column. But in this case, it was going to be more than one. Chastain was going to distract the city fathers from their fixation in granting tax abatements to developers to — grasp! — thinking about public transportation. He had another light rail proposal to push on folks.

Yet the city council knew his presence would last only for a little while. “Put it on the ballot and get it behind us,” said Councilman Jim Glover, as the council took up the Chastain’s imitative. After all, the council, in its 20th century focus, had more important issues, like worrying if there was enough parking downtown. No need to be concerned; Chastain will do his thing and his light rail issue will lose at the polls.

Where other people might go the chiropractor for an adjustment or the dentist for teeth cleaning, Chastain comes back to Kansas City for an ego fix. For Chastain, it isn’t really about light rail, or helping Kansas City, it’s about getting in the news spotlight. Local, legitimate light rail advocates — those that tried to work with him in previous campaigns — know that. His return to them was welcomed about as much as having a meth lab discovered next door to your mom’s house.

Yet, we pay attention to him — however that long that span may be — because a lot of people in the metro Kansas City area wish for light rail. And Chastain is all we got.

The Mid-America Regional Council, which should be taking a lead in seriously examining, and advocating, a light rail solution, remains mired in car-culture thinking with roads and buses driving its transportation agenda. The latest is a road-building plan aimed in southern Kansas City and Johnson County, and affecting other counties south on both sides of the state line that will cost millions of dollars and accelerate sprawl while pushing up property tax rates.

A search of MARC’s web site did not turn up any mention of light rail. Fixed rail or commuter rail was noted in MARC’s 2006 legislative wish list, pointing to the I-35 proposal that has been bouncing around for years, hindered by foot-dragging on the part of BNSF railroad.

For a laugh, go to the Smart Moves page on the MARC site. When reading the goals of Smart Moves, I especially liked the one about “Keeping up with other American cities in public transit services.”

For many observers of how public policy gets implemented in the Kansas City area, there’s a feeling of frustration and anger. How is it that so-called elected representatives and their sponsors in the business community can quickly rally behind constructing a multi-million dollar arena, or sink public money into renovations to sports stadiums, or the lightning-fast pursuit of putting a proposal before the public on building a soccer complex before a feasibility study is completed, yet anything PUBLIC, be it light rail, improving schools, cleaning the air and water, gets studied to death, slapped down because of “money” concerns or just plain ignored?

Because that’s the reality, we end up with faux advocates like Chastain.

Kansas City leadership on the light rail issue has been pathetic. Mayor Barnes and the rest of the city council did not campaign for the city-sponsored light rail plan in 2001. They feared making the business community angry, particularly since the Chamber of Commerce hasn’t even remotely come close to supporting any kind of public transportation proposal except that of buses.

Johnson County officials aren’t any help. Most don’t believe there’s anyone who lives in Johnson County that can’t afford a car, doesn’t drive or who might have the inclination to use public transportation that doesn’t include standing at bus stop for an hour.

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, who as KC mayor killed the city’s first light rail proposal because he concluded it was designed for tourists — as if tourism is a bad thing for Kansas City — now, as reported by Christopher in a column, is willing to work with Chastain on a light rail proposal.

Such a change of heart seems suspect, considering Cleaver’s web site states nothing about the congressman being willing to talk with Chastain or supporting light rail.

As for environmental groups that should be supporting light rail for clean air reasons alone, they seem more interested in battling KCP&L over building more power plants. A worthy effort, yes, but one that from a public relations and recruitment standpoint in spreading an environment message seems dull to people.

Chastain has impregnated Kansas City with another light rail proposal called Question 2, which is on the Nov. 7 ballot. It includes his “froufrou” gondola ride from Penn Valley Park to Union Station — something that could be shot down in a New York minute because of security reasons with the new IRS facility nearby.

His “slam, bam, thank you maam” modus operandi hurts chances that light rail will become a reality in this area any time soon. Chastain has made no effort to mount any sort of campaign or gather other like-minded light rail supporters to his side. He made the talk show rounds and bounced back to Virginia.

As disingenuous Chastain’s efforts are in putting forth his latest plan, he is correct on some things. His light rail route, from the zoo to KCI, makes a lot of sense. As for financing the project, so what if his number of $945 million is off. Name one area project, especially one put to a vote and backed by public money, completed within the budget numbers initially announced. From constructing a new fire station in Kansas City North to the downtown arena, costs climb beyond what public officials first stated.

Chastain is also correct in noting light rail projects and expansion in Denver, Minneapolis and Portland. Embarrassment from comparisons to other cities has some effect on public policy in Kansas City — consider the Sprint Arena, the proposed Performing Arts Center, the eventual, though tardy, realization from city hall about the Crossroads District, the building of downtown condos and lofts, and the fear of losing professional soccer.

As much as Chastain seems dysfunctional within his light rail obsession, it deserves a yes vote. Call it a vote for light rail, a vote to get Kansas City out of the 20th century. To use a cliché: A way to send a message.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at


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