For the ninth time in 20 years, activist Clay Chastain has a petition initiative on a Kansas City ballot. All but one failed with voters, and that one was repealed by the City Council as unworkable.
This $2 billion vision is Clastain’s boldest yet, seeking 25-year sales taxes to help pay for a 40-mile light rail and electric bus system from Kansas City International Airport to south Kansas City. It’s the type of citywide rail project many residents say they want. But critics say it’s so flawed it should be stopped in its tracks. Here’s what voters need to know about Kansas City Question 3 on Nov. 8.
Ballot language calls for light rail separated from traffic, connecting KCI to the Cerner campus at Bannister Road with eight additional stops: in the Northland’s Twin Creeks neighborhood, Vivion Road, North Kansas City, downtown, Union Station, the Plaza, Brookside and the Zoo. It also calls for an east-west spur from Union Station to Arrowhead Stadium.
What Chastain says: In a telephone interview from his Bedford, Va., home, Chastain said the route is flexible and the City Council can adjust or shorten it. But the ballot is pretty specific. He envisions it possibly running through Line Creek Park in the Northland, on Broadway and through Penn Valley Park, Swope Park, Mill Creek Park, and on or near the Trolley Track Trail and in the Country Club Plaza right-of-way. A rudimentary map is on his website, KCLightRail.org.
Chastain argues his plan is far superior to a proposed streetcar extension to the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He snubs that modest approach as “cowtown urban planning” and says it “doesn’t address the city’s lack of good, long-distance transit connectivity or to get people to jobs.” He sees light rail as a huge growth catalyst, especially in the Northland.
“If Kansas City wants to be a world-class city,” Chastain said, “it will have to invest in a world-class public transportation system.”
What critics say: Many people would love to see light rail to KCI and wonder why it can’t happen. But it’s just not feasible, say transit experts who have studied this. Besides the huge expense of going 19 miles from downtown, light rail to the airport is impractical because of the Northland’s sparse population and job density. Also, half of KCI’s passenger traffic is from Kansas residents who would not be directly taxed for this light rail system. On a daily basis, about 15,000 passengers from the greater metro area depart or arrive at KCI, and only about 1,700 are Kansas City residents. Assuming 25 percent would use transit, that fills just a few of the 350-passenger light rail trains.
Karen Clawson, senior transportation planner with the Mid-America Regional Council, acknowledges the frequent desire for light rail to KCI along the Interstate 29 corridor. “We do talk to the public. Of course, we always hear about getting convenient service to KCI,” she said.
But that aspiration doesn’t match the facts. “It’s a difficult corridor to serve because of the land use, the way development has grown and the pattern of development,” she said.
Most studies say light rail needs residential densities of 10,000 per square mile, while the Northland generally has about 1,000 to 3,000 people per square mile. A 2007 study by HNTB found that north of Vivion Road didn’t support transit, and that KCI, like most U.S. airports, “would be unlikely to produce significant ridership, either employees or air travelers.” This is borne out by daily bus ridership to KCI averaging 750.
Chastain predicts the Twin Creeks area north of Barry Road would be ripe for ridership, but full build-out could take 30 years. Where rail transit is most justified by population, jobs and transit ridership, according to engineering studies, is from the Missouri River to UMKC. That’s the proposed streetcar spine.
One more detail. Chastain’s rail system would run through North Kansas City, but there’s nothing in the ballot language that taxes North Kansas City residents for that service. He says they should pay their fair share, but why would they if Kansas Citians agree to build the system for them?
What Chastain says: Chastain estimates the cost at $45 million per mile for light rail, plus $200 million for several hundred mini electric buses. He argues Kansas City could save money by using existing parks and boulevards, where streetcars once ran. He correctly points out that Charlotte, N.C., spent about $47 million per mile on nearly 10 miles of light rail that opened in November 2007. Norfolk, Va., opened a 7.4-mile line in 2011 that cost $43 million per mile.
What critics say: Chastain woefully underestimates current light rail costs, opponents say. Charlotte’s 2007 phase used an old railroad track. Its newest light rail phase of just under 10 miles, scheduled to open next August, is slated to cost $1.1 billion. Other cities where projected costs are close to $100 million per mile include Phoenix, Denver, and Durham, N.C. Minneapolis has a plan costing $122 million per mile.
Chastain says the city can build whatever it can afford. Opponents say it’s unfair to tell voters their tax dollars can create a citywide plan that won’t materialize. And if City Council members determine this project is unbuildable, they can repeal the plan, as they did with a previous Chastain plan.
The ballot language calls for two new sales taxes totaling three-eighths of a cent, starting in 2017, for 25 years. Plus, an existing three-eighths-cent bus sales tax would be redirected to the plan for 25 years, starting in 2024.
What Chastain says: Chastain calculates these taxes could raise $2 billion over 25 years, but that’s assuming lots of inflation, because a three-quarters-cent tax currently generates about $53 million per year. Chastain argues the three-eighths-cent bus tax should be repurposed for light rail and electric buses, which would be much more appealing. And he points out correctly that when voters first approved that three-eighths-cent tax for the buses in 2003, it was supposed to be temporary, setting the stage for a regional funding plan that never happened. Voters in 2008 renewed the local bus tax through April 2024.
“Buses aren’t cutting the mustard,” Chastain said, correctly pointing out ridership has dropped in recent years, from 16.8 million rides in 2014 to 16 million rides in 2015, averaging only about 52,000 weekday riders. Ridership is down 5 percent, mirroring a nationwide trend. “It’s an abysmal value for the tax dollars,” Chastain said. “People don’t want to ride these buses without integrating in to a light rail system.”
These are citywide sales taxes paid by residents and nonresidents, which Chastain says spreads the tax burden more fairly than the streetcar approach, which imposes taxes just in special districts near the route.
What critics say: Diverting the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority’s three-eighths-cent bus tax would be devastating, taking away about $26 million of its $95 million annual budget, says agency President Robbie Makinen.
“It affects our service levels to the tune of 25 percent, and that includes really cutting down our paratransit (special services for the disabled),” said Makinen, who is blind and relies personally on the services. Chastain’s rail would replace some of that service but not most of it, Makinen predicted.
The ballot says financing “may include federal matching funds.”
What Chastain says: He hopes his plan can qualify for 50 percent federal funds, up to $1 billion. He says his plan meets the federal criteria of getting people to jobs, being environmentally progressive and connecting destinations where people want to go. “If I’m sent to Washington, I’ll get that money,” he predicted.
What critics say: The plan can’t qualify for federal funds. First, it takes money away from the existing bus system, while federal regulations say a new system can’t degrade existing service. Also, the proposed route doesn’t represent a community consensus for long-range transit planning. So critics argue it wouldn’t score well in cities’ highly competitive hunt for federal funds.
Kansas City vs. other cities
What Chastain says: He aspires to give Kansas City the extensive rail system that places like Denver and Charlotte have.
What critics say: Denver has an eight-county, 1-cent tax that raises $570 million annually for its transit and rail projects. Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, has a half-cent transit tax in a county with 1 million residents. In this region, Kansas City is the only city with dedicated transportation taxes that barely raise $60 million per year. So it’s hard to create the massive rail projects that other regions have.