news feature
May 4, 2007




Movement toward another light rail vote
by Tom Bogdon

The 75,000 Kansas City voters who approved a Clay Chastain-initiated light rail proposal last Nov. 7 probably didn’t expect to be asked again to vote on light rail — to repeal the Chastain plan and replace it with still another plan, one developed by the Urban Society of Kansas City.

But that’s what the Urban Society, whose president is Birch Telecom founder David Scott, and some members of the American Institute of Architects-Kansas City Chapter proposed at a workshop April 28 held in second-floor loft at 1617 Main. About 125 persons were there on a pleasant Saturday morning.

In a pamphlet handed out at the meeting, The Urban Society was quoted as being “dedicated to making Kansas City a great urban place by any measure.”

Yet the group also maintains, “Today, Kansas City does not measure up. Its once vital urban fabric has been ripped apart by shortsighted, anti-urban ideas. It lacks the population density necessary for economic and cultural vibrancy. It has sprawled, and in the process, has become a poor environment for pedestrians. Its public schools are bad, its municipal government inefficient, and its crime rate relatively high.”

The Urban Society has four goals for the city’s core area, which it roughly defines as being from the Missouri River to 85th Street and from State Line to the eastern city limits. By 2020, the society hopes the area has:

• 100,000 new housing units.

• 24-hour mass transit within a five-minute walk

• 1,000 new storefront businesses

• Infill 95 percent of the city’s vacant land.

“We were delighted with the passage of the Chastain plan,” Scott told the audience. “But in looking at the Chastain plan we see that it needs to undergo major revisions. Our effort is to get streetcars running on Main Street by 2011 or 2012.”

Durwin Rice, owner of the Durwin Rice Gallery, 5516 Troost, pointed out that the voters have already approved the Chastain plan and a funding source. Rice said he voted for that plan last November.

“How about implementing that plan in phases?” Rice asked.

Kevin Klinkenberg, an architect and board member of both the Urban Society and the American Institute of Architects-Kansas City Chapter, replied: “That route runs on Broadway. That’s the wrong place to go. The Broadway business owners are opposed to that route.”

Scott noted that the Chastain plan had drawn strong criticism from The Kansas City Star. Yael Abouhalkah, the newspaper’s urban affairs writer and a member of the Editorial Board, has described the Chastain plan as “wacky,” a description he also used on the Ruckus show on KCPT-TV, on which Abouhalkah is a regular panelist.

E. Thomas McClanahan, who writes from a conservative perspective and also serves on The Star’s Editorial Board, also has ridiculed Chastain and the plan the activist developed.

In an April 8 column headlined, “MEMO TO CLAY CHASTAIN: IT’S TIME TO BOW OUT,” McClanahan wrote, “If only Clay Chastain had walked away. If only he had said, ‘Here ya go, KC, here’s your best chance for light rail. I’m done with it.’ Well, he would have been a hero. But then, he’s Clay Chastain, and his favorite role is playing David against Goliath — Goliath being what he calls the local Establishment….”

The Chastain Plan envisions a light rail line originating at Swope Park and running north on Troost, west to the Country Club Plaza, north on Broadway to Union Station and downtown, across the Missouri River and through the Northland to Kansas City International Airport, a distance of about 27 miles.

McClanahan cites anecdotal “proof” that voters did not mean to approve specifics of the plan that were clearly spelled out in the ballot language, including the Broadway segment of the route.

Chastain, who lives in Bedford, VA, and periodically visits Kansas City, is leery about leaving implementation of light rail to the Establishment, which includes contributors to a group that opposed Chastain’s light rail plan.

One of the most prominent contributors to “Citizens for Responsible Spending” was businessman James B. Nutter of James B. Nutter & Co. Nutter is opposed to light rail on Broadway and, according records on file, contributed $23,000 to Citizens for Responsible Spending.

Nutter declined to be interviewed for this story.

At the Urban Society workshop downtown, Scott said that group plans to take its plan to the mayor and city council with the objective of “improving or amending the existing plan.” Scott said he would like for a ballot measure to come to a vote this year.

“If it doesn’t get traction with the mayor or city council, then we’ll consider a petition drive,” Scott said. “I don’t think it’s clear how this moves forward. We might take the Draconian step of standing in front of grocery stores getting signatures.”

Dick Jerrold, director of planning for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA), which has been designated “sponsor” for the Kansas City light rail project, attended the meeting.

“Let me clarify what the KCATA is doing,” Jerrold said. “We’ve started the Alternative Analysis process. Our goal is the same as yours. We feel obligated to look at the voter-approved plan. We should have that done by spring of next year.”

Councilman Ed Ford, chair of the City Council Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also attended the meeting, as did Councilwoman Jan Marcason, a committee member.

“There’s a consensus Clay’s plan is not feasible,” said Ford. “He (Chastain) over-promised. Hopefully, we can reach a consensus on a route.”

Ford was referring to discussion at the meeting about whether the Urban Society’s proposed streetcar line would run on Main Street or on Grand Boulevard through Crown Center. Drawbacks of the Grand route that were cited included the fact that Crown Center Square is occasionally closed for festivals, and Grand north of Washington Square is the route of the American Royal and St. Patrick’s Day parades.

Another possible problem with the short Urban Society route — from Downtown to the Plaza and then east to Troost — that was cited at the meeting was its lack of wide voter appeal.

“Voters got behind the Chastain plan because it went to the airport,” said Ron McLinden, a retired city planner and member of the Sierra Club.”

McLinden added later: “I hope we don’t see the process here today go to an initiative petition campaign. This should be part of a broader community process,”

What does Chastain think about the slicing and dicing of his plan by the Urban Society and other interest groups, particularly the major change of the central route from Broadway to Main/Grand?

“The first consideration for taking Broadway over Main and Grand is that Broadway serves the west side of Downtown at the Performing Arts Center and the Convention and hotel center,” said Chastain in a phone interview. “The line then extends east to Sprint Center, Power and Light District, and government center. If you’re going to the airport it’s crucial that the line be connected to the Downtown Convention Center.

“The second reason is it’s going to be much easier to make a convenient connection between light rail going through Penn Valley Park to the west side of Union Station and the routes to Johnson County, Kansas City, Kansas and Lawrence, and Blue Springs.”

Chastain added. “So you have three major potential passenger rail routes that could interface at Union Station with Kansas City’s north/south light rail line.”

This convergence of multiple rail lines at Union Station, he said, would transform Kansas City’s light rail system into part of a regional system “and best use of Union Station as a transportation center.”

Chastain said he was aware of the Urban Society’s interest in running streetcars on Main Street, and that he did not oppose that objective as a further step toward building a comprehensive modern transit system in Kansas City and the region.

“Main Street could use a light rail line but you can’t run light rail on both, although you could have a streetcar line on Main Street,” Chastain said. “We could bring back the original streetcar line on Main, which could eventually go all the way to Brookside, Waldo and Dodson at 89th Street.”

Chastain said that streetcars are actually better suited for running through neighborhoods and could transport riders to the light rail station at the Plaza for the trip to Kansas City International Airport.

“That’s one of two lines I plan to present to Mayor Funkhouser,” Chastain said. “That’s a light, light rail line.

“The other is an East Side rail system that would tie into the spine and make a loop from Troost and Brush Creek and go east on Brush Creek to Prospect, then north on Prospect to Independence Boulevard. Then it would turn and go west to intersect with the spine downtown.”

Chastain said this line would be designed to be a “capital improvement investment to stimulate economic development in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.”

Asked how these extensions would be funded, Chastain said: “I’m going to propose that we earmark a quarter cent of the existing one-cent capital improvement sales tax and rebuild the Main Street streetcar system and expand the Brush Creek-Prospect-Independence Boulevard light rail loop.

“Both of these lines qualify for federal funds,” Chastain contended. “They both run through densely populated areas of the city. Can you see the federal government turning down a Prospect light rail line, a line that serves part of the city where the people need good transportation to get to jobs and which will stimulate economic development in a part of the city that historically has been neglected?”

As for the attractiveness of a restored Country Club Streetcar line to the federal government, Chastain said, “They always like to see cities make use of existing rights-of-way to reduce the cost of rail systems.”

Chastain said he has been working on these concepts since voters approved Question 2 and the light rail spine on the ballot last November.

Tom Bogdon is a Kansas City-based freelance journalist. He can be contacted at Other eKC online articles on light rail by Bogdon are at,, and


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