Too long or too short. This street or that street. A billion or millions.
For the past year, Kansas City has been tangled in a debate over what light-rail system to pursue. Voters approved an ambitious plan designed by Clay Chastain in November, but city leaders say that plan is unworkable and underfunded. Several groups are studying various options, and the city’s transportation agency is tasked with coming up with an alternative plan.
Most cities our size already have some form of rail transit. Nearly everyone agrees the time has come for light rail in Kansas City. So it’s no longer a question of if or when, but how?
To help focus that discussion,The Kansas City Star
today offers readers one possible solution.
The newspaper spent four months studying light rail in other cities, meeting with local rail planners and interviewing about 100 community leaders, from business executives to politicians to future riders. The paper then pieced together a light-rail plan based on research, consensus -- and the requirement that it can actually get built, and soon.
The result is below. According to our collective community wish list, it’s a system that starts small, is locally affordable and can be expanded later.
In coming days, we’ll learn if any of these ideas make it into the city’s official plan. But what seems clear is that finally, after years of debate, light rail is on its way to Kansas City.
"It’s what dynamic cities do," Crown Center President Bill Lucas says. "If we want Kansas City’s renaissance to achieve its potential, this is a fairly significant piece of the puzzle."
A short starter route that’s just 9.75 miles, extending from the Northland to the Country Club Plaza, with a branch east along Linwood Boulevard.
All-local funding that will allow the city to get the starter line going soon rather than waiting years for federal funding that may never materialize.
New light-rail technology called the "modern streetcar" that is lighter and less costly than traditional light rail.
A consensus for a workable light-rail plan
The six principles to a successful start
Consider a night on the town -- dinner on the Country Club Plaza followed by a Sprint Center concert. You drive and park, drive and park, then fork over a hefty parking fee.
Or what about commuting from the Northland into downtown? Crossing the Missouri River can be stop-and-go driving followed by an expensive parking tab.
But what if you could just ride state-of-the-art light rail? And what if that could happen in the next few years?
It’s actually possible.
Light rail has been debated in Kansas City for decades, but it has a new sense of momentum now. Civic and political leaders are intent on finding an alternative to Clay Chastain’s $1 billion voter-approved plan.
Toward that end, The Star consulted with experts locally and in other cities to work out an affordable, practical and realistic light-rail solution for Kansas City: A 9.75-mile starter system of modern streetcars, running from the Northland to the Plaza with an eastward branch. All this would cost $341 million, which would require a ¼-cent sales tax increase.
This is just one idea, but it reflects the work and desires of many civic groups, transit consultants and political leaders. Close to a dozen groups have been studying light rail starter routes or analyzing election strategies, from the Greater Kansas City chamber to the Northland chamber, from the Citizens Association political club to the ATA’s citizens light-rail task force. Only the ATA’s process is the official one. But all of this is being done in something of a vacuum, each independent of the other.
The Star took a different approach. We went across the city to business executives, elected officials, political groups and various transit advocates to ask: What kind of light-rail system should Kansas City have? And how big of a system can we really afford?
The result was something of a community consensus on a set of six guiding principles for a light-rail starter route:
Start small. Twenty-five of the 27 metro areas larger than Kansas City have some type of rail transit. Many successful regional systems offer a compelling lesson because they started with shorter, urban routes and expanded from there.
Cross the river. "It’s got to get across the river," said City Councilman Bill Skaggs. "The people of the Northland would feel some ownership of it." Plus, crossing the river is a first step toward getting to Kansas City International Airport.
Serve high transit demands. The ATA bus lines with the highest daily ridership are along the Troost and Prospect avenue corridors, which The Star’s eastward branch along Linwood Boulevard would connect to.
Make it modern yet affordable. The latest trend in light rail is the modern streetcar system. This isn’t the slow-moving antique trolley. The newest modern streetcars look like a train, run on rails in city streets and speed up to 45 mph, while costing almost half as much as traditional light rail. These modern streetcar systems are being planned in more than a dozen cities, including Cincinnati and Omaha, Neb.
Pay for it locally. Kansas City’s prospects for federal transportation matching funds are iffy for many reasons, and the process takes half a decade. Many community leaders want to get going with something now. "We need to take things in our own hands and get it started," said downtown real estate executive Jon Copaken.
Seek less than a 1/2 -cent sales tax increase. The last decade is littered with light-rail proposals, including one from City Hall, that sought half-cent sales tax increases and were trounced. A recent public opinion poll found a ¼-cent tax increase for light rail had close to majority support. "That’s within striking distance" of victory, said longtime political consultant Pat Gray.
These guiding principles, along with additional research and interviews, steered The Star toward a consensus-oriented starter route that serves several different parts of town while costing a little more than the Sprint Center.
This starter plan borrows a few concepts from other light-rail concepts previously proposed for the city. For instance, the Urban Society of Kansas City, a group promoting urban-oriented planning, first suggested modern streetcar technology. Also, Clay Chastain once suggested light rail along Linwood Boulevard.
But this proposal is different in some important aspects.
For one thing, it represents a hybrid of modern streetcar light-rail systems, combining the sleekness of the Portland, Ore., streetcar with the Tacoma, Wash., dedicated, transit-only lanes -- an element the ATA’s light rail consultants strongly favor.
For another, it’s shorter than anything that’s been on an election ballot before -- all previous city and Chastain proposals exceeded 20 miles. As a result, this plan costs less than anything in the past.
The starter plan is basically a demonstration project, a way to serve some commuters, connect some attractions and show that light rail can work here so the suburbs will then become more serious about pursuing a regionwide rail system.
"There’ll be more of a push if we can just get that starter line in, because that’s what we’ve seen happen in so many other cities," said Councilman Ed Ford, a Northlander spearheading the city’s light-rail strategy as chairman of the council’s transportation committee.
In Ford’s mind, the 9.75-mile starter plan seems sensible in many ways. "Getting over to Prospect makes a lot more sense, ridership-wise, than going a mile or two farther north," he said.Why light rail?
For any starter route to work, the city must overcome one overriding question: Is it worthwhile to even build light rail here?
The answer is a resounding yes, for a variety of reasons.
There’s the city’s competitiveness, whether in attracting jobs or conventions. "There are certain things all (major) cities have, and light rail is one of them," said Christopher Byrd, a member of the Northland Regional Chamber of Commerce’s light rail task force.
There’s the development potential. Developers like to build around light-rail stations because the rails are a permanent investment bringing people to a destination. In Minneapolis, housing construction along the route surpassed the 20-year projection in less than a decade.
There’s the need to improve mass transit. Kansas City doesn’t have much traffic congestion for its size, but some rush-hour choke points exist, particularly crossing the river. In many cities, when light rail replaced buses, transit ridership doubled.
Finally, light rail could save you money.
Consider: If an average, two-car household got rid of one vehicle, and one member instead rode light rail five times a week, that household would save an estimated $4,000 a year. If a household wanted to keep that second vehicle and just use light rail for commuting, the estimated annual savings works out to more than $1,800. Just a downtown commuter’s parking savings could be worth $1,000 a year.
"Oh yeah, to avoid parking downtown, that’d be great," said Carolyn Vellar, a Northland neighborhood consultant who comes downtown for meetings or events.
The fact is, the time has never been better for Kansas City to move forward on light rail. City officials feel an urgency to satisfy the public’s appetite for light rail. The public is more interested in environmental stewardship and sustainability. Plus, much of the city’s business elite has done a 180-degree turn on light rail.
Why the shift? With downtown re-energized now, transit connections are more important. Plus, these executives have become more aware that forward-thinking cities are investing in light rail, and Kansas City needs to keep up.
"A lot of people say, ‘It’s time,’ " said Jonathan Kemper, chairman of Commerce Bank in Kansas City. "It does work."
Six principles to guide a light-rail route SUPPORT
Support for a light-rail starter route can be found in different sectors of the community:
Civic and business leaders
Many key downtown executives endorse the main principles of a light-rail starter route. They eventually want to see a regionwide rail system, but they realize successful regional systems in other big cities typically started with a small route.
"That's the only practical way to do it," said DST Systems chief executive Tom McDonnell. "You have to do it in increments."
Several urban-core advocates, who have studied light-rail alternatives, endorse such cost-cutting details as using modern streetcars, funding it locally, even crossing the river on the Heart of America Bridge instead of building a new transit-only bridge.
"I'm so tired of hearing (transit planners) need a new bridge," said Dave Scott, a telecommunications executive and board member of the Urban Society of Kansas City, which champions better urban planning. "It's part of cost escalation that makes this (light rail) difficult to ever do."
Many past light-rail plans and even current alternatives offered by different groups have ignored the East Side north of Brush Creek, the section of town with the city's highest transit ridership. A proposed alignment along Linwood, however, links the East Side to job centers in the central business corridor, something that appeals to some Freedom Inc. political club leaders and even former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, who torpedoed a solitary downtown-Plaza route a decade ago.
"That's the most powerful idea I've heard for everyone to support it," U.S. Rep. Cleaver said of the consensus-based starter route's eastward alignment. "The first leg needs to be from a place of high unemployment to a place of high employment opportunity."CHALLENGES
There's no way any light-rail starter line will satisfy everyone. But if Kansas City is going to move forward with a small, self-funded route, the city needs to overcome these challenges:
Letting a starter route balloon
A Northland Regional Chamber of Commerce task force recently recommended that a starter route reach Interstate 29 and Vivion Road. That's two miles farther than a terminus at the Water Works plant. Such a position is understandable -- groups all across the city want a bigger piece of light rail. But each additional mile adds $35 million to the cost. Experts say a starter route likely will expand later, just as light rail has done in so many other cities.
Convincing key interests Power Light District developer Blake Cordish doesn't want light rail passing through the district on either Grand Boulevard or Main Street. In the past, the Kemper banking family at UMB objected to light-rail plans on Grand, although now it's taking a wait-and-see attitude. Powerful voices will exist for or against just about any light-rail alignment.
Mayor Mark Funkhouser's regional vision
Kansas City's mayor has indicated he's not ready to support a small starter route. Instead, he favors beginning with an entire regionwide system. Only if that effort gets bogged down would he consider a smaller starter line. But based on experiences that leaders recount in other major metro areas, Funkhouser will have an easier time getting suburban officials here interested in light rail once they see something up, running and winning rave reviews.