Kansas City officials hope to find a way to preserve their own streetcar plans while dealing once and for all with the dilemma of Clay Chastain’s light rail crusade.
The city will submit ballot language to a judge Monday to comply with a Missouri Supreme Court order to put Chastain’s proposed light rail tax increases to a public vote.
But one council member said the city will not promise to spend the money on Chastain’s grand plan because the Supreme Court said the money doesn’t have to go for that purpose.
The thorny situation is likely to set the stage for more legal battling or negotiating with Chastain over an initiative petition process that has dragged on for three years. And it could create a distracting competition on the November ballot between Chastain’s light rail vision and the city’s own streetcar ambitions.
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“Democracy is often messy,” said Councilman Ed Ford, a member of the Council’s Legal Review Committee that worked last week on proposed ballot language to go to Jackson County Circuit Judge Sandra Midkiff.
“We have a group of citizens who have a different vision of what is possible,” Ford said, referring to Chastain and the people who signed his petitions. “It’s now clear, we have a ruling from the highest court in the state, what we’re required to do.”
Once the city submits its proposal to Midkiff, Chastain and his lawyer have five days to object, and then Midkiff will approve final language for the November ballot.
It all stems from Chastain’s 2011 effort, in which he gathered about 5,000 petition signatures asking voter approval for a 3/8-cent sales tax increase to help pay for a 22-mile light rail system, a 19-mile commuter line and an 8 1/2-mile streetcar line. The City Council refused to put the measure on the ballot at the time, saying Chastain’s tax proposal didn’t raise nearly enough money to build the system.
Chastain appealed all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court, which ruled in February that the only questions required for the ballot would be the imposition of two taxes: 1/4-cent for capital improvements and 1/8-cent for transportation. The court said that the city was not required, however, to spend the money on any particular project, including Chastain’s.
Ford said the City Council still doesn’t want to describe Chastain’s whole plan on the ballot when it believes the plan is financially unworkable. If it were to pass, Ford said, the City Council would be in the difficult position of explaining to voters why it put something on a ballot that it didn’t support.
That happened in 2006, when voters approved Chastain’s only successful light-rail initiative, but the City Council later repealed it because it took money away from the bus system.
Chastain, who has proposed more than a half-dozen light-rail concepts since the late-1990s, said Friday that he is willing to compromise with the city more than in the past, and he is not insisting the city build his entire plan.
“We understand there may be funding issues if we can’t get federal money, and the city should have some flexibility in the plan,” Chastain said by phone from his home in Virginia. “I’m sure the court would rather the litigants work out something than the court have to order something.”
Through the various court cases over the years, Chastain said, he has learned the city has the right to amend or even repeal his petition initiatives.
“I feel like I can work out a brokered compromise. My attitude has changed,” he said. “The court has changed my thinking.”
But Chastain said he is not willing to have his proposed tax increases just go for the city’s own plan, which also may appear on the November ballot. The city wants to expand the downtown streetcar starter line by about 8 miles, with extensions along Main Street, Linwood Boulevard and Independence Avenue and a rapid bus line on Prospect Avenue.
Voters living within a proposed taxing district that encompasses much of the city south of the Missouri River will be asked to approve that taxing district this August. If it passes, those same voters will be asked to approve a sales tax increase and new property tax assessments in November.
Some transit supporters acknowledge that any type of tax increase, either for the city’s streetcar system or Chastain’s plan, is likely to be a tough sell this year, especially because the state of Missouri is also seeking a 3/4-cent sales tax increase for transportation in August.
Chastain’s citywide ballot measure could also make the November ballot confusing, at least south of the Missouri River, transit supporters agreed.
“It’s nerve-racking,” said Kite Singleton, a longtime Kansas City transit advocate who said Chastain’s never-ending activism from out of town has been “disruptive and distracting.”
Singleton said Chastain has never been willing to do the extensive planning necessary to qualify for federal funding, while the city has worked hard to design a streetcar plan worthy of federal funding. He said two competing measures on the November ballot south of the river won’t help.
“It would be very confusing and certainly destructive to the efforts that scores of people in the public domain and the private sector have been working to craft an appropriate approach to extending the streetcar,” he said.
But Chastain defended his years of activism and said he thought his plan would be worthy of federal funds. Even if it isn’t, he said, the proposed tax increase could provide a windfall for the city.
“Three-eighths cent for 25 years is a substantial investment in modernizing Kansas City’s transit system around light rail,” he said.
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Transportation tax proposals
Many voters in Kansas City could face three sets of tax increases related to transportation this year.
LIGHT-RAIL TAX: Kansas City voters could be asked in November to approve sales tax increases totaling 3/8-cent for a light-rail system and more, proposed by Clay Chastain in a 2011 petition drive. But the Missouri Supreme Court says money from the taxes would not have to be spent on any particular project.
STREETCAR TAX: Voters in much of Kansas City south of the Missouri River will be asked in August to establish a bigger taxing district for a streetcar expansion. If that passes, those same voters will be asked in November to approve a sales tax increase and new property tax assessments.
STATE TRANSPORTATION TAX: The state of Missouri is seeking a 3/4-cent sales tax increase in August for highway improvements and other transportation needs. All Missouri voters will be asked to approve the tax.