news feature
April 13, 2007

 

 

 

Federal Reserve official wants leadership role and panel agrees to ‘first phase’ light rail route
by Tom Bogdon

Taking the role of mediator at an April 9 American Institute of Architects panel discussion about prospects for light rail in Kansas City was the Federal Reserve Bank’s Thomas M. Hoenig, who smoothed differences of opinion among participants and said he wanted “tracks on the ground” within five years.

The light rail program, sponsored by the AIA’s Kansas City Chapter, drew a capacity crowd of more than 200 persons to the Helzberg Auditorium at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central branch downtown.

Other participants in the panel discussion were Mark Huffer, general manager of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority; Mell Henderson, director of transportation for the Mid-America Regional Council; Joni Roeseler, representing the Kansas City regional office of the Federal Transit Administration; and Clay Chastain, a civic activist whose light rail initiative was approved by Kansas City voters last November.

Kevin Collison, The Kansas City Star’s development writer, served as moderator of the panel discussion and joined with Hoenig in guiding the panelists and members of the audience toward resolution of problems and differences.

Hoenig is president and CEO of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, and serves on the boards of Union Station, the Midwest Research Institute and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Those acquainted with Hoenig know he has been following the light rail debate here for years, but he explained to a reporter after the AIA event that since passage by voters of the Chastain initiative he now felt comfortable taking a public leadership role.

At one point in the discussion, after successful light rail systems in St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver and Dallas were mentioned, it was concluded that in all those cities a business leader rose to the light rail challenge, and pushed and prodded the local civic leadership to bring the effort to a successful conclusion.

The Star’s Collison said, “Don’t we have a business leader in Kansas City who can take the lead?’

“I like to think I could play that role,” Hoenig remarked.

In addition to the distinguished panel, many members of the audience have been players to some extent in the Kansas City area’s long frustrating, and some would say exhausting effort, to update its transit system. Among those in the audience was Councilman-elect Ed Ford, a Northland leader who will represent the 2nd District at large.

Asked after the meeting what he thought about it, Ford said: “No big surprises, but very interesting.”

Ford said he had spoken to Mayor-elect Mark Funkhouser about creating a City Council Transportation Committee, and added that he (Ford) would like to chair the committee.

“I’ve talked to him (the mayor-elect) briefly and I’ll talk to him again next week,” Ford said. “It would be a standing committee and it would consider light rail, but not light rail exclusively. It would incorporate the existing Aviation Committee and consider Northland parkways, along with anything affecting transportation.”

In his introductory remarks, Hoenig said the renaissance of urban rail transportation in large midwestern cities after years of decline has resulted from the economics of energy. Higher prices for oil and price volatility have begun to discourage single-occupant vehicle commuting. Another factor, he said, was international oil politics. Russia is a big oil producer, and China and India are beginning to demand more and more oil.

“I’m not going to get into global warming, but the environment is another big factor.” Hoenig added. “Then there is the dynamics of our metro area. Creative individuals want to live in the urban core. How do you link downtown to the suburbs? Many people want to move between downtown and the Plaza in a way that they don’t need automobiles. This is important to growth, to making the city a good place to live.”

Hoenig said that Interstate 35 from Olathe to downtown has become one of the most congested corridors in the United States. The Fed banker said a rail system in that corridor and others would reduce the need for commuting by automobile. These are the reasons that rail systems, fed by busses, are exceeding ridership projections all across the country.

Hoenig said these light rail systems are expensive to build, from $30-million-per-mile and up, and they require investment of public dollars to support them. But he said all means of transportation including aviation and highways require taxpayer support.

“The question is whether rail is a good use of tax dollars,” Hoenig continued. “The citizens of Kansas City have spoken. They want light rail. We should all agree we need light rail. And we should have tracks on the ground in five years.”

Activist Chastain has pushed for implementation of at least a section of the light rail plan approved by voters in even less than five years, while ATA transit leader Mark Huffer has said that planning, engineering and securing federal matching funds could require 10 years or longer.

In the AIA panel discussion, Hoenig and Collison questioned Huffer and Chastain, as well as the Federal Transit Administration’s Joni Roeseler and MARC’s Mell Henderson, about how building the first phase of Kansas City’s light rail system could be expedited.

During these back-and-forth, give-and-take discussions, two key items of agreement were reached, as follows:

First, Chastain’s plan, as approved by voters, envisions a 27-mile initial route extending from Swope Park through the Plaza to Union Station and downtown through the Northland to Kansas City International Airport.

However, all parties agreed that the first phase of the plan to be built would extend from the Plaza to Union Station and downtown to North Oak Trafficway and Vivion Road in the Northland. This route was extensively studied as part of a light rail plan developed for Mayor Kay Barnes in 2001, which later was rejected by voters. This first phase is about 12 miles long.

Secondly, to save time, this first phase of the light rail plan will be built WITHOUT reliance on federal grants, which can amount to 50 percent or more of total costs. Using an estimated construction cost of $40 million per mile, the proposed 12-mile route would cost $480 million. Bonds to finance construction would be sold in 2009, when the three eights cent sales tax approved by voters becomes available.

According to Chastain, that sales tax, authorized for 25 years, would yield $750 million, which Chastain said the city’s Finance Department described as a conservative figure. Thus the proceeds of the three eights cent sales tax over 25 years would be sufficient to retire the construction bonds plus interest.

The question was raised during the discussion about whether the city’s investment in the initial 12-mile phase of the light rail system would be eligible for federal matching funds once the first phase was operational and the region was ready to build extensions. Joni Roeseler of the FTA said that under current FTA rules, those matching funds would not be available. However, Roeseler added that Congress could change the rules or even grant a waiver.

In answer to a question from The Star’s Collison, Huffer said that all members of the area’s congressional delegation, from both sides of the state line as well as from both the House and Senate, were supportive of the region’s efforts to build a light rail system.

Another advantage to proceeding with the first phase without federal funds is that construction costs are increasing and that waiting as long as 10 years for a go-ahead from the FTA could mean that increased construction costs could wipe out the purchasing power of the long-awaited federal grant.

Another concern expressed by the ATA’s Huffer was that the transit agency currently receives the proceeds from the three-eighths sales tax for bus operations and would have to reduce bus service when the tax is instead earmarked for light rail in 2009.

Discussed as a solution to this problem was enactment of a new one-eighth cent bus sales tax, as authorized under existing Missouri law. Chastain also pointed out that the light rail plan also provides for 60 new electric buses that would circulate from light rail stations to surrounding neighborhoods. New state transit funding was also mentioned.

One other matter that received considerable attention during the AIA event was extending light rail to Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas, and to such Missouri suburbs as Blue Springs and Lee’s Summit. MARC’s Mell Henderson said that the metropolitan planning agency was updating its Smart Moves transit plan to incorporate the new reality of light rail.

“We at MARC are excited by the vote in November,” Henderson said. “We now see a light rail system under girded by buses. Now we’re working to update and refresh Smart Moves.”

Tom Bogdon is a Kansas City-based writer. He can be contacted at tjbogdon@yahoo.com. Other eKC online articles on light rail by Bogdon are at www.kcactive.com/news/newscomm/newscomm2007_02_02.htm and www.kcactive.com/news/newsfeat/newsfeat2007_02_09.htm.


              
              
                 

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