news commentary
February 2, 2007


Excuses and critics dog light rail plan
by Tom Bogdon

Critics of the Clay Chastain light rail plan approved by Kansas City voters last November charge that Chastain drew the route on the back of a napkin and pulled cost figures and financing projections out of thin air. But unless you mistake voters for fools, designing a successful light rail plan is no piece of cake.

Just ask former Kansas City Mayor and state Sen. Charles B. Wheeler, who in the early 1970s joined forces with Missouri Gov. Warren E. Hearnes, St. Louis Mayor A.J. Cervantes and the executives of Jackson and St. Louis counties to develop a $730-million-dollar state transportation bond issue, funded by a nickel gasoline tax, which would have provided $180 million for rail transit projects in the Kansas City and St. Louis regions.

Then U.S. Sens. Stuart Symington and Tom Eagleton promised to bring home 90 percent federal matching funds, available at the time, which would have yielded total state and federal funding of $1.2 billion for rail transit in the St. Louis region and $600 million for rail transit in the Kansas City area. It was a lot of money at the time.

Because the Missouri General Assembly and the highway commission were controlled by out-state interests who thought state’s big cities were centers of sin and corruption, hundreds of millions of dollars were earmarked for rural roads and bridges. Hearnes and the Kansas City and St. Louis leaders agreed to place the transportation bond issue on the ballot through the initiative petition process, which meant collecting signatures throughout the state.

But this forward-looking plan went down in flames when a St. Louis public relations agency hired to collect signatures on the initiative petitions turned in forms that included such citizens as Mickey Mouse. This fiasco set back modern transit projects in urban Missouri for years, in Kansas City more so than St. Louis.

Serious rail transit planning was not revived in Kansas City until the mid-1990s, when Richard F. Davis, general manager of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) and a former executive director of the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), spearheaded planning for a starter light rail line between Downtown and the Country Club Plaza.

Davis was just getting his ducks in a row on the Downtown/Plaza route when then-Mayor Emanuel Cleaver suddenly came out against it, labeling it “touristy frou-frou.” Cleaver’s criticism was based on the fact that the line did not serve outlying centers of employment and it did not reach the city’s East Side. Of course, Davis was proposing the route as a starter line, and planned to extend it in the future; but the damage was done. Modern transit in Kansas City had sustained yet another setback.

Civic activist Clay Chastain had first confronted the issue of an abandoned and decaying Union Station. Area civic and political leadership — and the public — finally came to the rescue of the beloved and architecturally significant landmark by passing a bistate tax plan. But it was a Chastain initiative effort that sounded the alarm to place this long-festering problem on the civic and political agenda.

Chastain, who made a living remodeling and reselling houses, next turned his attention to convincing Kansas Citians that the city needed a light rail system. Before last year’s successful effort, the determined activist collected enough valid signatures to launch ballot measures in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2003.

In 1999, when Chastain ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Kansas City, the need for light rail was at the top of his list of city improvements. Chastain was defeated in the city primary election, but the winning candidate, Mayor Kay Barnes, initiated a light rail planning process of her own. In 2001, a light rail proposal featuring a route that ran on Troost and Main streets, and extended into the Northland, was put on the ballot. It failed.

Chastain, an affable man with a magnetic ability to attract establishment foes, moved to Athens, TN, and then Bedford, VA, with his wife, Valerie, a graduate of the UMKC School of Law and a practicing attorney; the couple now has a young daughter. But Chastain just couldn’t stay away from Kansas City and its need for light rail.

In the summer of 2006, Chastain began hanging out again outside Brookside and Westport grocery stores where the activist over the years has gotten to know regular customers who are willing to sign his petitions. This time Chastain had a billion-dollar plan for a light rail line from Swope Park, near the entrances to Starlight Theater and the Kansas City Zoo, all the way to Kansas City International Airport, a distance of 27 miles. (See map)

Map by HNTB for Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

Stations are included at the Troost side of the UMKC campus, the Nelson-Atkins Museum, the Country Club Plaza, Westport, Union Station, the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the Convention Center, the Power & Light District, Sprint Center, the City Market, North Kansas City, North Oak Trafficway, Zona Rosa and KCI.

Chastain’s political foes, such as Kansas City Star editorial writer Yael Abouhalkah, also a regular on public television station KCPT’s Ruckus show, took their usual potshots at the Chastain plan. These foes harrumphed that while light rail is needed, Chastain’s plan suffered from various alleged defects. Abouhalkah wrote in his weekly column that the plan was “wacky” without saying exactly what problems concerned him.

But voters were ready for changes last November. They were tired of the Iraq War and sick of President Bush’s failure to develop a coherent energy policy that dealt with environmental and economic problems. Higher gasoline prices, traffic congestion, air pollution and the fact that other Midwest cities Kansas City’s size were building or extending light rail lines also entered into the mix.

As far as the Kansas City light rail plan was concerned, it soon became evident as the election returns came in that the light rail initiative had a chance to pass. The first Kansas City returns to come in were from Clay and Platte counties north of the Missouri River. In these anti-tax areas it became evident that what Northland voters wanted was a line that crossed the Missouri River and extended all the way to the airport. That’s what Chastain’s plan offered them.

Then the returns for the Jackson County portion of Kansas City began to roll in. Voters on the East Side and West Side also nudged the proposal toward victory. The route to Swope Park and the Union Station connection paid off. Even voters in the affluent Ward Parkway corridor went for the light rail plan.

The plan passed citywide with nearly 54 percent of the vote. But the critics couldn’t keep their mouths shut. Councilman Chuck Eddy was quoted in the Star’s front-page story reporting the light rail vote as saying the plan was “not rational.” Political consultant Pat O’Neill scoffed that Kansas City could never qualify for federal matching funds. Abouhalkah began writing negative editorials and columns critical of Chastain and the plan, insisting that voters really didn’t understand what they were voting for.

Chastain believes voters understood exactly what they were voting for.

“I think the people liked the specifics of the plan,” Chastain said recently. “They liked the way it was environmentally friendly. And it had excitement to it. It takes people to places they want to go.

“Critics of the plan implied during the campaign that the design was drawn on the back of a napkin and not well thought out,” Chastain continued. “However, the plan had a balanced match between political appeal and a budget, and taxing plan that evidently appealed to voters.

“The system was designed so that everyone could see themselves using it because it provides service to most of the city — from the East Side to the West Side and from the south to the north,” Chastain continued. “So the plan was inclusive and the demographics of the vote proved that. The plan had solid support throughout the city.”

Chastain holds a degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Arkansas and has a PEIT (Professional Engineer in Training) certificate. He spent hundreds of hours researching successful light rail systems in the United States and Europe, and consulted with numerous officials in these cities.

Chastain said presentation to the voters was as important as the overall design.

“I tried to get the people to understand the benefits of a modern transit system for themselves, for the city and the environment, and also focused even more on Kansas City’s waste of tax dollars subsidizing a transportation system that relied too heavily on diesel buses and served too few people,” Chastain said. “I pointed out that less than 4 percent of Kansas City residents were utilizing the transit system.

“If you’re going to pay for a transit system, why not have a system that not only will move people to where they want to go, but which also will generate more economic prosperity for Kansas City?” Chastain asked.

Chastain also asserts that the design of the transportation “spine” that the ballot initiative provides is the framework for a regional rail transit system that can be extended to Johnson County, Kansas City, KS, eastern Jackson County and eastern Clay County.

“We wanted light rail, not only diesel buses,” Chastain continued. “This is where we have fundamental disagreements with MARC and the KCATA, which were proposing the concept of a diesel bus system as the foundation for their Smart Moves plan. The light rail system I proposed can be expanded into a regional system in which the main transit lines will converge at Union Station, which was not a part of the Smart Moves plan.”

As for closing Broadway to automobile traffic through Penn Valley Park, Chastain explained: “That part of Broadway goes to the original intent of the initiative — to create a more livable environment for the people and make the city more attractive to new residents and visitors to encourage economic development.

“You can’t have a safe, pastoral park that’s useful to all the people with trucks and automobiles streaking through it,” Chastain said.

As for the gondola ride the initiative includes between Union Station and the Liberty Memorial in Penn Valley Park, Chastain said it was designed “to give Kansas Citians an unique and impressive attraction that would meet a transportation need and also compete with other great attractions such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.”

A majority of voters saw the merits of Chastain’s plan, but some journalists and politicians — protesting that they really love light rail — have been seizing on three alleged technical problems with the initiative petition to basically throw out the plan approved by voters and replace it with something else. These instant transit experts haven’t specified who would draw up the new and improved plan they are demanding.

One of the technical problems cited by Assistant City Attorney Bill Geary was that the initiative might have violated the Hancock Amendment to the Missouri Constitution. This supposedly is because the three-eighths cent city sales tax enacted to pay for construction of the light rail system would yield an estimated $600 million, short of the estimated $1 billion or more final cost.

The ballot language states that state and federal funds would be used to pay part of the cost, but Geary said that since the state and federal grants depend on Congress and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), these funding sources are not guaranteed and therefore violate the Hancock provision that spending proposals be fully funded.

However, Geary acknowledged in an interview that, if necessary, this constitutional defect could be cured by resubmitting the identical proposal to voters with the simple addition of the phrase “to the extent that funds are available” to the ballot language. And that amendment might not even be necessary since the intent of the ballot proposal clearly was to rely on state and federal grants as well as the specified sales tax.

Another technical matter identified by Geary was that the light rail route would run through Swope Park and Penn Valley Park as well as on Broadway, which is a boulevard. According to Geary, the Parks and Recreation Board would need to seek voter approval by requesting the city council to submit a ballot measure to the voters.

This is a routine procedure, and the voters have already approved the light rail plan. If the Parks Board was recalcitrant, its members could be replaced by the mayor.

The third and final “problem” cited by Geary was that the specified light rail route passes through the Northland cities of North Kansas City and Gladstone. This shouldn’t be a problem, either. North Kansas City Mayor Gene Bruns and Gladstone City Manager Kirk Davis both told eKC online they saw no problem obtaining approval from their respective city governments. Davis called a light rail connection in his city an “exciting prospect.”

Countering such roadblocks, real or perceived, are Chastain and his wife. In a Jan. 30 press release, attorney Valerie Chastain responded to “’potential’ legal defects and other ‘significant problems’ of the voter-approved light rail initiative.”

“It is my legal opinion,” stated Chastain, “ that there is nothing involving the petition initiative approved by the voters that is illegal, impossible, or unconstitutional.”

Chastain went on to state that if the new mayor and city council “delay implementing” the plan “by attempting to either repeal it or amend it significantly and resubmit it to the voters” legal action will be taken. The press release then went on to specifically rebut the “problems” cited by the Office of The City Attorney of Kansas City, MO.

Though Chastain’s legal response appears to have quieted many of the critics, it’s a stretch to say minds have been changed. Abouhalkah of The Star and his colleagues Dave Helling, Barb Shelly and Tom McClanahan don’t miss a chance to pick at the light rail plan approved by voters. KMBC-TV Channel 9 reporter Michael Mahoney also takes digs at the plan and at Chastain.

Helling has said on KCPT’s Kansas City Week in Review program that he doesn’t think light rail will ever be built here. McClanahan has suggested that the Northland section of the route should be truncated at a park and ride lot somewhere far short of Kansas City International Airport.

Abouhalkah favors the Smart Moves diesel bus concept but he has hinted that he could support a route from Downtown to the Plaza, the very route that Mayor (now congressman) Emanuel Cleaver described as touristy frou-frou because it would not provide access to outlying jobs or serve the transit-dependent East Side.

Needless to say, the 12 candidates in Kansas City’s Chinese fire drill of a campaign all say they are in favor of building a light rail system, but few have taken a specific stand on the light rail plan now on the table.

The most high-profile journalists to treat Chastain, his plan and the voters who approved with respect are Hearne Christopher, The Star’s “Cowtown Confidential” columnist, and Johnson County Sun columnist Steve Rose, who also hosts a show on KCPT-TV. Hearne quoted Steve Rose in his Jan. 26 column:

Sun Scribe Steve Rose,” Christopher wrote, “doesn’t much interfere in Missouri politics, but he does sympathize with Clay Chastain’s light rail plan.

“’Have you heard one Kansas City public official stand up and say, ‘This thing may not be a perfect deal, but by (golly) the voters wanted it and we’re going to see what we can do to make this happen?’” Rose asks. “They’re afraid to. There’s tremendous pressure to treat him as a goofball’”

So is Rose now joining the ranks of the pro Clay?

“’I think the people spoke, and it’s our responsibility to make sure (his plan) is implemented and not find every reason it’s not going to work,’” Rose says. “’I’m a big believer in democracy; it isn’t just Clay Chastain. You don’t second-guess the voters. This is what they said they want.’”

Tom Bogdon is a Kansas City-based freelance writer. He can be contacted at


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