publisher's note
August 10, 2007



When it comes to light rail in KC,
it takes effort to work through the Mickey Mouse-ness of it all

by Bruce Rodgers

These days, if you’re a light rail supporter in KC, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Only in our midwestern sprawl-kingdom would such an issue as public transportation have equal amounts of seriousness and pettiness.

Early in the week, it was announced that 6,000 signatures had been gathered seeking repeal of the light rail plan passed last November. Midtown community leader Greg Patterson stepped up as spokesman for the petition group while everyone in town pointed to wealthy mortgage banker and political bankroller James B. Nutter Sr. as the guy who really led the petition charge.

Depending upon whom you talk to, Nutter is either protecting his economic interests in the Westport area, intensely dislikes light rail activist Clay Chastain, fashions himself the protector of working poor who depend upon buses for transportation or is just bored and likes the excitement of a political campaign — in this case to stop something rather than supporting someone.

In any case, Nutter did alert certain local officials of the petition drive before it went public — the point being not to blindside any political leaders.

On KCUR’s Up to Date program today, Patterson worked overtime to distance Nutter away from the petition campaign. “The petition drive was not launched by Nutter,” Patterson flatly declared early in the program. He went on about a coalition of businesses, churches and nonprofits banded together to stop the destruction of Broadway as a boulevard.

Patterson also repeatedly spoke of Chastain’s voter-approved plan as one threatening the bus system “The money he’s using takes services away from the working poor,” said Patterson.

It's likely Patterson isn’t basing his opinion on the experience of frequently riding the ATA; Nutter is usually chauffeured when traveling around town — and not by a bus.

On the same program, Chastain demonstrated once again what a stubborn, defensive, boring know-it-all he can be. He viciously attacked a HNTB Corp. engineering study questioning the feasibility of his light rail plan passed by voters. He boldly declared himself “an engineer” without offering proof of such a claim and later in the program said he made his living “planting trees.”

In between the schoolyard bickering of Patterson and Chastain, Councilman Ed Ford, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Mayor Mark Funkhouser spoke of their ideas for making light rail a reality in Kansas City.

Funkhouser noted that because of the petitions the city council could decide to repeal the light rail plan — something that’s politically distasteful for most of them — or put the question on the November ballot, which could conflict with renewal of the sales tax or put it on the February 2008 ballot along with an alternative light rail plan.

Funkhouser stated that Chastain’s “plan won’t work” because it takes money away from the bus system, and any Kansas City light rail plan would required another tax proposal. Funkhouser clearly extended a hand for Chastain to renegotiate “if we can’t get a regional plan.”

Funkhouser wants a regional plan. Quietly, he has been going to the offices of Wyandotte and Johnson County public officials to talk about a regional transportation plan. And this week, Funkhouser met with Platte County mayors where the issue of light rail was discussed.

Funkhouser has scored some positive notice with his low-key approach. The chairman of the Board of County Commissioners in Johnson County Annabeth Surbaugh has publicly voiced her support for light rail as has Mayor/CEO Joe Reardon of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, KS. At one meeting attended by some Kansas House members, there was talk of legislation being introduced in the Kansas Legislature to begin paving the way for a regional approach to public transportation.

Ford, however, said on the KCUR program he’s “not confident about Kansas people” in supporting a regional plan. He would rather have a starter line up as soon as possible, calling light rail an “invaluable economic development tool.”

While it’s hopeful that Funkhouser is getting some good feedback for his regional overtures, those efforts do detract from the immediate turmoil surrounding the issue.

If the public votes down Chastain’s plan in November or February, light rail may never come to Kansas City. Which, in my opinion, puts in jeopardy hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in downtown, would drive away young people wanting to be part of a place that’s in the 21st century and relegate Kansas City to a third-rate town incapable of keeping pace with other cities.

If the voter-approved plan is shot down and no alternative is offered up to voters — with political and civic leaders united for its passage — then, of course, Chastain could launch another petition drive; Nutter could counter with one of his own, and we would be right where we are now.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at


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