Study recommends I-70 route for commuter rail

If and when commuter rail service connects downtown Kansas City with its Jackson County suburbs — and that remains a big “if” — those commuter cars would run along existing tracks that roughly parallel Interstate 70, according to recommendations of a new study.

The so-called alternatives analysis unveiled Tuesday also calls for express buses to supplement the rail, as well as a hiking-biking trail along the former Rock Island railroad tracks that run between the Truman Sports Complex and just north of Pleasant Hill.

That corridor that would be Kansas City’s link to the statewide Katy Trail, and where a second commuter rail line might also figure in the future.

“What we’re talking about is a comprehensive Jackson County system,” said Calvin Williford, top aide to County Executive Mike Sanders.

Tuesday’s announcement held few surprises. A Jackson County commuter rail system has been studied and discussed for more than a decade.

But Sanders gave it new momentum when he took up the cause three years ago because he thinks it would be boon to economic development, among other advantages.

If it comes to fruition, it will likely only be with the support and permission of a majority of Jackson County voters. The study anticipates little or no federal funding for the rail portion of the plan and instead would be funded by a countywide sales tax.

At 1 percent, the tax would bring in $80 million a year and possibly more, says Williford. To build the first phase — from the River Market to Oak Grove — would cost $327 million to $434 million, according to the latest estimates. That would include the cost of building stations, upgrading existing Kansas City Southern freight tracks to commuter standards and buying a type of rail car known as diesel multiple units, or DMUs.

The cars are self-propelled, meaning there is no separate engine, and can run frontward and backward. So there’s no need to build turn-arounds, saving money.

The cars are $3.4 million apiece and take two years to build. Jackson County envisions buying 10 of them, Williford said.

During construction, buses similar to the Troost and Plaza Max would ferry commuters along I-70 and Missouri 350.

The first phase would also include the cost of acquiring the Rock Island right of way from the Union Pacific and building the trail.

A second phase would build a rail line alongside the Rock Island trail and would cost $170 million to $225 million, according to the study.

Operating costs are set at $10.7 million a year for phase one and $4.3 million for phase two.

Recent changes in how the federal government funds transit projects favor densely populated areas over those with fewer people. But Williford said the county will work hard to get federal money for rail, if the plan moves ahead.

“We are hopeful that the federal government will not ignore the heartland,” he said.

Sanders says the county would like to hook the system up with Union Station, but it’s not been easy to get permission for that from the railroads that jointly own the tracks leading up to it.

So for now, the plan calls for the westernmost station being at Third Street and Grand Avenue, where passengers could transfer to the streetcar line Kansas City hopes to build.

That would be a perfect fit, given that the first phase of the streetcar goes only as far as Union Station, according to City Councilman John Sharp.