Light-rail extension unites council, East Side

An olive branch to Kansas City’s East Side led to a veritable love fest for light rail on Thursday.

Nearly a dozen Kansas City African-American leaders — almost a who’s who of influential power brokers — showed up at City Hall in support of an extension to the city’s proposed light-rail starter line that would take it to 63rd Street along Bruce R. Watkins Drive.

In addition, African-American City Council members, who previously had doubts about the starter line, declared their intent to support the new 14-mile route proposal.

As a result, Councilman Russ Johnson, who leads the council’s light-rail strategy, announced that all council members and the mayor were now co-sponsoring the legislation to place the starter line on the city’s November ballot.

"It’s nice to see the council united," said light-rail transit planner Dick Jarrold. "That’s a biggie."

Kansas City is proposing a light-rail starter line from from Interstate 29-Vivion Road in the Northland through downtown to the Country Club Plaza, then east to Watkins and south along Watkins to 63rd Street. In the past week, Johnson worked with East Side interests and council members to add an extra 2 miles along Watkins. That raises the overall estimated cost from $727 million to roughly $815 million.

On Thursday, the council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee unanimously approved an ordinance to place the project on the November ballot. The full council will take it up next week, with an Aug. 26 deadline to approve something for that referendum.

But the city still doesn’t have all the funding sources identified. It intends to ask city voters for a three-eighths-cent sales tax increase, plus get at least a 50-percent match from the federal government.

But Kansas City Area Transportation Authority officials acknowledged the 2 extra miles on Watkins created a nearly $100 million funding gap. They hope to make up the difference with more federal or state funding, cuts in the light-rail budget, or maybe special taxing districts along the route.

Despite this funding uncertainty, city African-American leaders used the council’s last official public hearing Thursday to make a show of force in support of the Watkins extension.

Among those attending were the Freedom Inc. political club’s Craig Bland, the Urban League’s Gwen Grant, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Anita Russell, former council members Carol Coe and Ken Bacchus, and attorney Clinton Adams Jr. They see light-rail providing economic development opportunities on the East Side.

"It’s important to have economic stimulus in our city, and bringing (light rail) out to 63rd Street does that," Bland said.

Coe added: "You have assured us equal participation."

Adams provided a little humor while voicing how important light rail’s investment was to the East Side.

After some Main Street property owners expressed reservations about how light rail would fit and operate on that street through midtown, Adams quipped: "For the people on Main Street … we certainly would welcome it coming over to the 3rd (council) District instead."