On behalf of improved regional transit awareness, it’s time to pony up in Jackson County.
Several suburban cities recently have approved or considered five-figure appropriations for a mass transportation “education campaign” being championed by Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders.
The goal is to raise awareness of mass transit in general and highlight its importance “to a vibrant, growing community,” Sanders said.
So far, five cities have approved funds, including $39,904 authorized last month by Independence and $17,958 approved in January in Blue Springs. Sanders hopes the money will cover 20 percent of the program’s projected $750,000 cost, with the balance being contributed by private business leaders.
Most city officials have backed the outlays, even while several municipalities are operating under austerity measures.
“The response has been virtually unanimous, which is clearly better than we anticipated,” Sanders said this week.
But Thursday night the Lee’s Summit City Council chose not to vote on a $31,206 appropriation. Alhtough some council members supported the expenditure, others wondered how the money would be spent and whether the program would represent an endorsement of a particular transit plan.
On Friday, Steve Arbo, Lee’s Summit city manager, said he had contacted Sanders’ office to obtain further information regarding the program, adding that he hoped council members could reconsider the request within 30 days.
The appropriations are being discussed in context of an ongoing study, or “alternatives analysis,” expected to be released this spring or summer.
The study will identify the most efficient mode, or modes, of regional mass transit — what planners are calling the “locally preferred alternative” — along two corridors stretching from downtown Kansas City through eastern and southeastern Jackson County.
Those scenarios could involve commuter rail cars running over existing or abandoned rail lines, along with buses, or some combination of both.
Last month Sanders appeared before the Independence City Council to assure members that the education program would not advocate in favor of any particular mode or scenario.
“Absolutely not, of course not,” he said.Money approved despite tight budget
In Independence, approval of the appropriation was unanimous, even though the city laid off several employees last year and many remaining employees have had to schedule three furlough days this fiscal year.
“Some opportunities never come at the right time,” said Don Reimal, Independence mayor. “But I think this is one opportunity whose time has come.”
Although the Blue Springs City Council approved its appropriation in January, one lone dissenting vote was cast by council member Ron Fowler.
Fowler said that while he wasn’t opposed to Sanders’ efforts, he was concerned to see the funding approved during an across-the-board Blue Springs salary freeze. Fowler added that he was also bothered by a lack of specific detail on how the money would be spent.
“When I asked for a plan, they didn’t have one,” Fowler said. “Budget times are very tough right now, and that’s why I’m a little stern about how we spend some of our money.”
Sanders this week said the actions of the transit education committee of the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance, the nonprofit transit education group, are public. He added that he would be willing to submit further information to Fowler upon request.
The Blue Springs appropriation represents a responsible investment despite tight budgets, Mayor Carson Ross said. For perspective, a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise for all Blue Springs city employees would cost about $350,000.
“You can’t be short-sighted,” Ross said.
“We’re putting about $18,000 toward economic development and toward getting more traffic off Interstate 70. Gas prices are going up every day. You can’t text behind the wheel, but you can text from a train.”
Sanders had addressed the Blue Springs council in January, following up a letter he had sent to Blue Springs and other Jackson County municipalities in late 2011.
The letter explained the education program and how the suggested appropriations from each city had been figured by multiplying each city’s population by about 34 cents. County officials arrived at the 34-cent factor by taking the total they were requesting from cities — $120,000 — and dividing it by the county’s population, which is 351,329, minus Kansas City. Officials in Kansas City are studying a separate proposed streetcar project along Main Street.
One early use of the county education program money, the letter added, could be a poll to determine residents’ level of knowledge about regional transit options.
But there could be other benefits, said Lou Austin, Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance board member.
“We have gone through a lot of gyrations in our attempt to decide, as a region, what kind of transit, if any, we are going to embrace,” he said. “This topic touches a lot of hot buttons, and we have had a lot of false starts. So part of the transit education effort is to start with a clean background and get back to basics.”
The contributions of the five cities that have authorized appropriations represent commitments of $68,667. Other money has come from a coalition of homeowners associations and development groups. The Mid-America Regional Council, a Kansas City area planning organization, has pledged $35,000.
Although specific modes of transit have not been endorsed officially, two corridors have been discussed at length at public meetings.
One would run generally east along Interstate 70 from downtown Kansas City through Independence, Blue Springs, Grain Valley and Oak Grove in Jackson County, and then on to Odessa in Lafayette County.
A second would run east out of downtown before turning southeast and heading through Raytown, Lee’s Summit and Greenwood in Jackson County and on to Pleasant Hill in Cass County. The Raytown Board of Aldermen is scheduled to consider its proposed $10,058 appropriation on Tuesday.71 Corridor
A third route, sometimes called the “71 Corridor,” would stretch from downtown south along U.S. 71, past Grandview and toward Belton. The formal review of this corridor, however, began only in January.
That didn’t stop aldermen in Grandview recently from approving its requested appropriation of $8,360.
Other city officials appear to be counting on proposed modes becoming official in the alternatives analysis study. Ross of Blue Springs believes the study of the “I-70 Corridor” likely will endorse the use of commuter rail along the Kansas City Southern rail line that runs through his downtown district.
“Absolutely,” Ross said.
In Lee’s Summit, residents are well aware that the southeastern corridor — already known as the “Rock Island corridor” — could include re-use of the old Rock Island rail line, which in some areas has been overgrown with trees, said Arbo, Lee’s Summit city manager.
“We anticipate these areas becoming attractive for future economic investment, perhaps for offices or residential or retail development,” Arbo said.
But nothing is official until the alternatives analysis is released, said Tom Gerend, assistant transportation director of the Mid-America Regional Council, which is helping to coordinate the study.
“We are aware that there is significant public interest around the commuter rail alternatives,” Gerend said.
“But we are still going through this process.”