news feature
November 2, 2007




Citizen Task Force presents their light rail plan as questions about seeking federal money remain
by Tom Bogdon

In what may become a blueprint for supplanting the Clay Chastain light rail plan passed by voters last November, the Citizen Light Rail Task Force agreed this week on a “starter line. ” Using “Fast Streetcars,” the route would run from the UMKC campus on the south to Vivion Road in the Northland with stops including the Plaza, Westport, Union Station/Crown Center, the Power & Light District, 12th and Main, 11th and Grand, the River Market and North Kansas City. The line would cross the Missouri River on the Heart of America Bridge.

There would also be an east-west Fast Streetcar connection from Main to Prospect Ave. running on 18th Street, Linwood Blvd. or Volker Blvd./Swope Pkwy., with the exact route to be determined soon. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority plans a MAX Bus Rapid Transit line on Troost and the Light Rail Task Force is expected to recommend a MAX line on Prospect as well.

The 35-member Citizen Light Rail Task Force was appointed by the mayor, the Kansas City City Council and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) among applicants who live and/or work in Kansas City. Said to represent a broad spectrum of interests and viewpoints, the group has been meeting regularly since early August to discuss and plan a light rail starter line.

Their proposal, which continued to take shape this week, resembles a plan published on Oct. 28 in The Kansas City Star, but also has several differences. For example, The Star’s plan proposed an east-west Fast Streetcar line to Prospect Ave. along Linwood Blvd. But the Task Force, while not rejecting Linwood, also is considering 18th Street and Volker Blvd./Swope Pkwy. as the east-west corridor. One other difference between the two plans is that the Task Force would extend the Northland line to North Oak and Vivion Road, while The Star’s plan stopped at Waterworks Park.

John Dobies, an associate vice president of HNTB Corp. and project director for the light rail study, told eKC online that the north-south and east-west Fast Streetcar lines, combined, are about 12 miles in length and would cost about $400 million to build, including purchase of the streetcars. Fast Streetcars are somewhat lighter and less expensive than some other so-called light rail vehicles.

North Kansas City, which lies along Burlington Ave. on the north end of the Heart of America Bridge has expressed interest in participating in the light rail project, including helping to finance it. North Kansas City Mayor Gene Bruns told eKC online that he and other officials are closely following the Kansas City planning process.

This starter line proposal, by wide agreement, would be just that — a starter line for a system that would be expanded within Kansas City itself as well as to other parts of the metropolitan area.

One widely discussed future extension is to Kansas City International Airport. Other future connections to the Kansas City “spine,” possibly at Union Station, include destinations in Johnson and Wyandotte counties on the Kansas side, and Blue Springs, Lee’s Summit and Grandview in eastern Jackson County. Liberty would eventually be served by an eastern extension of the Northland connection. South Kansas City would also have future extensions.

Proposed street car route presented by the Citizen Light Rail Task Force.

This plan for implementing light rail in Kansas City calls for repealing the Chastain initiative approved Nov. 6, 2006, by some 75,000 Kansas City voters. Critics of the Chastain plan believe voters approved the concept of light rail development more so than the plan’s specifics. This repeal could be accomplished by a vote of the people, as specified by another initiative petition drive earlier this year that was led by businessman James B. Nutter, Sr.

However, there has been growing support in recent days for the city council to act on its own to repeal the Chastain initiative, which would require seven council votes. The Civic Council, a group of top business executives, called recently for the council to act on its own. And then this week the Citizen Light Rail Task Force agreed unanimously to urge the city council to act on its own to repeal the Chastain plan. That would make the Nutter petition moot.

“We have to make that decision next week,” said Councilman Ed Ford, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “In other words, we will have to put the Nutter petition on the ballot next Thursday (Nov. 8) or act on a repeal next Thursday — one or the other.”

Ford, who attended last week’s Citizen Light Rail Task Force meeting, said he thought the Task Force has done a good job of developing a plan for the starter line. Asked if he favored Linwood Blvd., Volker Blvd./Swope Pkwy or 18th Street as the east-west route to Prospect Ave., Ford gave the following analysis:

“I have a small preference for 18th Street because it connects to 18th and Vine and runs by the KCATA facility, and you have to have somewhere to do the maintenance,” Ford said. “Linwood would be better if you’re looking for a future expansion to the (Truman) Sports Complex. Whichever way the committee goes, I’m with them. If the group recommended Volker, I’m okay with that, too.”

Ford said he expected that the starter line would be paid for with a quarter-cent or a three-eights-cent sales tax, or some form of alternative tax. Matt Webster, a financial analyst with Oppenheimer & Co., is studying alternatives to the sales tax and other financing issues.

“If you do a starter route that long (as described above), you will need more sales tax or federal funding, or both,” Ford said. “I’d like to pursue federal funding myself. I hate to leave money on the table.”

Ford said he understood the position of those who are willing to forego federal matching funds in order to get “tracks on the ground” quickly, a view expressed a few weeks ago by Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank CEO Tom Hoenig. Ford said there may be ways to expedite the design, engineering and construction phases.

“Good congressional support would make up for a lot of sins,” Ford said. “And if we have consensus on a plan and voter approval, I think we’ll have congressional support.”

There was some discussion among members of the Citizen Light Rail Task Force of scheduling an election on Feb. 5 for both approval of the light rail starter line (with a funding sources) and renewal of the current three-eights-cent sales tax to support the existing bus system. Feb. 5 should be a high-turnout election day because Missourians will vote that day in the Super Tuesday Democratic and Republican presidential primaries.

“If we’re ready,” Ford said. “And I’m not sure we would do both (buses and right rail) on the February ballot. It could be an April election on the bus tax and an August election on light rail.

“It (Super Tuesday) would be terrific if we’re ready,” Ford added. “The mayor (Funkhouser) wants additional time to prove to skeptics that he could have a regional transit system funded regionally. Do you go without the mayor’s support, or even with his opposition? I’m not sure about that.”

The KCATA and its consultants, HNTB, have not discussed the details of the light rail routing through midtown. The Star, in the plan published in the newspaper, proposed that the light rail line run straight north on Main to 12th Street, where the line turns east to Grand Blvd. before proceeding north towards the River Market.

The Main Street alignment would allow convenient access to Union Station, as well as access to nearby Crown Center by way of The Link skywalk built several years ago with federal funds for this very purpose.

“That’s my preference,” Ford said. “I think Union Station makes a lot of sense. Union Station has a lot of potential as a connection. I don’t see that hurting Crown Center. That’s my preference.”

Fred C. Buckley, an official of the Home Builders Association who serves on the Citizen Light Rail Task Force, agrees with Ford on this point.

“I think it’s been assumed by all the Light Rail Task Force members that Union Station will play a huge role in this phase of the light rail project and especially in future expansion of the system,” Buckley said.

Buckley also favors proceeding without waiting for federal funding; he points out the federal funding could delay getting the line in operation for as much as a few years.

“I think we can do it locally without federal funds and should seek federal funds for extensions,” Buckley said. “I believe we need to get something on the ground now, as soon as we possibly can. If we go after federal funding, we would take an additional two to five years, which would preclude us from getting started right now.”

Ron Williamson, who heads the Northland Regional Chamber of Commerce light rail committee and serves on the Citizen Light Rail Task Force, on the other hand, believes it would be better to seek federal funding now.

“Our preference is to go for federal funding,” Williamson said. “A starter line has the best chances of getting grants. It might be hard to justify future extensions. This is a big question. I think people are excited about light rail. I think we should vote in February because the momentum is there. I think it is important to keep the momentum going.”

Rose Bell and Airick L. West, two members of the Task Force who live on the city’s East Side, organized a public meeting on Nov. 1, at Pioneer Community College to discuss light rail connections between Main Street and Prospect, a distance of about two miles.

“Basically, I want to make sure we don ‘t get overlooked,” Bell told eKC online. “We have a Prospect Corridor Initiative and it just fizzled out. We didn’t have the level of support in the city council to follow through on our initiatives.

“I like any plan that will incorporates Prospect,” Bell continued. “With better transit we will have economic development, people will have more pride in their community. The bottom line is that crime grows in an area where people have no hope, where they don’t have jobs and don‘t think they can rise out of poverty.”

Bell said she thinks the light rail plan will pass with bigger majorities if the city and the KCATA seek federal funds to help pay for the starter line.

“People are more likely to pay for it (the local share) if the project has federal support,” Bell said. “Other cities have light rail and they have gotten federal support, so I feel we should go for it.”

Tom Bogdon can be contacted at


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