news commentary
July 20, 2007

 

Competing ideas pick apart Chastain’s
voter-approved light rail plan

by Tom Bogdon

The go-ahead given by 75,000 Kansas City voters last November for construction of a light rail line funded by a three-eights-cent sales tax seems to be unraveling amid competing ideas for when, where, how and even if Kansas City will build light rail.

Chastain passes the hat to cover expenses in renting the light-rail tour van. (photo by Ron Johnson)

Clay Chastain, the long-time light rail promoter who finally hit the jackpot when voters said yes to his initiative proposal for a 27-mile line from Swope Park to Kansas City International Airport, came to town last week from his current home in Bedford, VA to meet with city officials, business leaders and reporters in an effort to expedite implementation of the voter-approved plan.

Chastain received numerous pats on the back from officials such as Mayor Mark Funkhouser and Councilman Ed Ford, chair of the Council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and met with business leaders including Commerce Bank CEO Jonathan Kemper and Kansas City Southern Railroad Vice President Warren Erdman.

Chastain conducted a tour for a vanload of news media representatives, Kansas City Area Transportation Authority officials and two city council members on July 18, in which the activist explained the finer points of the voter-approved route and pointed out landmarks along the way.

But it became clear, to this reporter at least, that there is no better than a 50-50 chance that the light rail route as devised by Chastain, who holds a degree in electrical engineering, will ever be built in its entirety. Reasons for this include possible funding shortfalls and issues of engineering and city planning — and, of course, politics.

Earlier in the day on July 18, Chastain met with Funkhouser and, according to both Chastain and the mayor, the meeting went well. However, Funkhouser reiterated his intention to continue to push for a regional transit plan, including some rail, with a regional rather than a city-funding source. Such a plan could take years to develop, but Funkhouser said he expected to know more this calendar year about the prospects for a regional approach.

Chastain, of course, believes that the plan he developed would serve as the “spine” of a regional rail system that would serve Johnson County, Wyandotte County and eastern Jackson County — as well as the Northland — through rail lines converging at Union Station. Chastain, who cut his political teeth campaigning to save Union Station from the wrecking ball, envisions the now restored landmark as a transportation hub, its original purpose.

But Union Station might not even be a station on the light rail line that is eventually built, let alone a regional hub. The Urban Society, led by telecom entrepreneur David Scott and architect Kevin Klinkenberg, envision a streetcar line that runs north on Main Street from the Country Club Plaza, then veers off Main to Grand Boulevard through Crown Center, then continues north on Grand two blocks east of Union Station.

Chastain’s voter-approved plan, on the other hand, envisions the Plaza/Union Station/Downtown light rail line running down Broadway, despite the opposition of Broadway business interests to light rail development on their street and strong support from Main Street interests for a light rail line on their street. Make no mistake, the city council has heard plenty from both Broadway and Main Street interests.

Besides what Chastain regards as the functionality of his route, the activist has a keen eye for Kansas City’s natural and architectural beauty. This was evident in the van tour July 18. Chastain, who is a student of parks and boulevard designer George Kessler’s contributions to Kansas City and an admirer of the early 20th century City Beautiful movement, stopped the van in Penn Valley Park to explain how his light rail system would navigate through the park on a wooden trestle, and he pointed out the scenic vista light rail riders would behold from a high bluff.

But, as Councilman Ford told KCUR-FM radio reporter Maria Carter, the voter-approved plan’s economic development potential would be limited by the route’s extensive use of park land and boulevard rights-of-way, and urban planners regard economic development potential as a primary justification of investing in light rail.

One of Chastain’s principal justifications for the Broadway alignment, including the route through Penn Valley Park, is his decision to interface with Union Station on the station’s west end. As Chastain sees it, the light rail would descend from the park’s high bluff, cross Pershing Road at grade level and then skirt the west side of the station’s carriage pavilion. Then, the light rail vehicles would run alongside the North Waiting Room toward a projected stop at the waiting room’s north end. There, passengers could transfer to east-west commuter rail lines bound for Olathe or Blue Springs, and intermediate points. Likewise suburban commuters could transfer to the north-south “spine” of the system.

Chastain discusses his light rail plan with City Councilman Ed Ford, chair of the Council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. (photo by Ron Johnson)

Chastain, who understands Union Station architect Jarvis Hunt’s excellent design for the station as well as anyone, was forced into this difficult solution to the Union Station connection for his light rail line by the ugly facts of life now included in the Union Station complex. These problems include the monstrous Two Pershing Square office building, which in the mid-1980s was plunked down on the tracks at Union Station, blocking convenient access to east-west train traffic.

This architectural atrocity was an irresponsible developer’s scheme to make a quick buck and has been described by Dick Berkley, who was mayor at the time, as the worst mistake of his administration. Two Pershing Square on the tracks to the east then spawned the equally offensive Science City addition, also on the tracks, on the west side. Chastain deals with these totally unnecessary problems by running his light rail line across the top of the Science City building, which seems to this writer to be a Mickey Mouse approach which will shock the decreasing number of remaining supporters of the ill-conceived and failing science museum.

Chastain and many other informed people from all parts of the metropolitan area no doubt would cheer the removal of the Two Pershing Square and Science City eyesores from the Union Station scene. This would restore Jarvis Hunt’s functional, elegantly designed station to full reuse as a rail transportation hub in an age when increasing highway congestion and rising fuel costs will dictate changing 21st century lifestyles. Then the north-south spine could interface with Union Station on Main Street as was the case with streetcars in Jarvis Hunt’s time up the late 1950s.

Perhaps Mayor Funkhouser will have the opportunity to mention this opportunity to his suburban counterparts while they are discussing metro transit options. After all, Union Station received strong support from all parts of the metro in the first Bi-State vote, when voters were promised a transportation hub.

In the meantime, these and many other weighty as well as nitty-gritty issues are being studied by planners for the city of Kansas City, the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA).

With respect to evaluation of the voter-approved light rail initiative, that task has been delegated by the Kansas City Council to the KCATA, which, in turn, has retained a consortium of consultants led by Kansas City-based HNTB. This consortium includes URS Corp. of Portland, OR, which specializes in rail projects, and CAN of Kansas City, whose principals include Vicki Noteis, former director of Kansas City’s Planning and City Development Department.

This “alternatives analysis,” which is part of the process for securing federal funds but which would be necessary in any case, will be paid for with a $2.5 million federal grant secured by U.S. Sen. Kit Bond.

Dick Jarrold, senior director of system development and engineering for the KCATA, said that all aspects of the voter-approved plan, as well as various alternatives, are being considered. He said this includes ridership studies, engineering issues, financing, etc. Jerrold said that some conclusions will be ready in spring 2008, and that an interim report will be presented by the consultant team in separate meetings on Aug. 20 and 21. One will be north of the Missouri River and one will be south of the river.

Noteis, who led the planning effort that led up to a city-sponsored, but unsuccessful 2001 light frail vote, told eKC online that she and other members of the consultant team will meet in the near future with attorneys in the City Law Department to sort out all aspects of the law governing initiatives, such as how and to what extent a voter-approved measure can be amended and whether the plan can be built in phases.

Tom Bogdon can be contacted at tjbogdon@yahoo.com.


              
              
                 

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