Jackson County executive wants to ride transit’s momentum

Now that downtown Kansas City is getting a streetcar line, Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders is ready to double down his political career on a more ambitious collection of rails, trails and buses.

His developing plan would stretch transit lines to the eastern suburbs, tap into old freight rail corridors and constitute what he calls “the largest infrastructure and public improvement project” in the county’s history.

Hyperbole, perhaps, but at a cost of more than $650 million, it would be more expensive than the recent upgrades at the Truman Sports Complex and, to Sanders’ way of thinking, pack far more economic impact than sprucing up Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums.

Sanders’ plan includes sleek commuter trains traveling along existing freight railroad corridors and linking downtown with Missouri suburbs as distant as Oak Grove and Pleasant Hill.

There would be new express bus service to cities that now do without, like Greenwood and Raytown, and expanded service to where buses already are crowded, like Lee’s Summit.

Topping it all off are additional hiking and biking paths, including a long dreamed of link that would extend the statewide Katy Trail all the way to the sports complex.

Trains. Buses. Trails. That is both the broad outline and the trifecta that Sanders bets will put a 1 percent sales tax measure over the top.

“There’s something in it for everybody,” said Robbie Mackinen, the county’s economic development director and chairman of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

Whether Sanders’ grand plan gets to a countywide vote depends on whether deals can be worked out first with the Kansas City Southern and Union Pacific railroads. They own the rights of way and most of the tracks that would be used.

Also uncertain are the costs, which aren’t nailed down enough for Sanders to declare the plan affordable.

“If we can’t get those two things done, then this isn’t anything we would ever put on the ballot,” he said.

But Sanders would not have worked as long and hard as he has and put his reputation at risk if he wasn’t confident of reaching both goals and seeing the plan passed.

“Mike Sanders is the first elected official in this community who has bet his life on the transit issue,” said rail advocate Kite Singleton.

Needs a full cent

Clearly, it won’t be an easy sell, given the history of Kansas City rail transit proposals. Voters have considered nine of them over the last few decades and rejected all but two.

And both were quirky.

Take the recently approved streetcar sales and property tax package put forward by Mayor Sly James and the Kansas City Council. It won with more than 60 percent approval.

But then consider that it was decided by a few hundred downtown residents who cast mail-in ballots in an election that some said was less than democratic. The majority of those who will foot most of the $100 million price are downtown property owners who live outside the taxing district and weren’t allowed to vote.

Then there was Clay Chastain’s light-rail plan in 2006. Out of eight citywide elections, only this plan got more than 50 percent approval. The secret? It called for no tax increase, shifting revenue from an already existing bus tax.

Partly because of that, the council later killed the plan.

So Sanders’ proposal is in a whole other league, and therefore it’s hard to predict how it might fare with voters.

The plan covers the whole county, not just Kansas City. It is multimodal, rather than rail only. And no one has ever asked the general electorate to approve more than a half-cent sales tax for rail transit.

Sanders’ plan requires double that, though with his assurance that all the costs will be accounted for ahead of time so there will be no surprises.

“We think that the full cent would be necessary,” he said, “and that’s all that would be necessary.”

A sales tax wasn’t part of the initial plan outlined in October 2009. Sanders said then that he would try to convince federal officials to bankroll the full $1 billion cost of the 144-mile system that would have crisscrossed the area and gone all the way to Kansas City International Airport.

A torrent of stimulus spending was just beginning to flow from D.C.

“All we’re asking for is our share of that trillion dollars,” Sanders said at the time.

It didn’t come close to happening. Because of the area’s low population density and policy changes out of Washington, it now appears that Jackson County rail won’t qualify for many federal dollars, if any.

What the federal government did provide was money to study three highway and railroad corridors.

Union Station out

The draft report released in November determined that the most bang for the buck would come from a combination of heavy railcars and buses along two of those corridors. (The third, along U.S. 71 and Interstate 49, is still under study.)

The project would be broken into two phases. The first would have heavy railcars ferry an estimated 1,150 to 2,800 passengers a day along the Kansas City Southern tracks between Oak Grove and the River Market. The existing tracks would need upgrades and additions, but not a lot.

Riders arriving downtown would transfer to buses or the new streetcar at Third and Main streets.

Most everyone agrees that the better connection would be at the other end of the streetcar line at Union Station. But the five railroads that own the tracks can’t even agree on whether to conduct a study. So River Market it is. Others stops would be in Grain Valley, Blue Springs and Independence.

Also in that first phase, plans are to build a trail along the Rock Island right of way, connecting with the Katy Trail extension now being built between Pleasant Hill and Windsor, Mo.

Later, in the plan’s second phase, tracks for commuter rail service would be laid alongside that trail. Added bus service figures in phases one and two.

The estimated construction cost is $497 million to $659 million. The annual operating cost is estimated to be $15 million.

Selling the plan

If the package were rail alone, it would not have the broad appeal needed to win a countywide vote. So from a political standpoint, the multimodal approach makes sense.

After all, what’s in it for the guy in Waldo who has no intention of ever riding the rails to eastern Jackson County?

“It’s everything from rail to bus service to trails to bikes,” Sanders said. “This is something that impacts all our lives and all of our quality of life.”

The economic benefits are another selling point. Sanders made the same point that Kansas City’s mayor drove home during the streetcar campaign. Cities without good public transit systems are likely to lose out when it comes to attracting the creative people who drive business innovation. They and aging baby boomers are less likely to want to spend time waiting in freeway traffic.

“Either we in Kansas City are going to be ready for that demographic shift or we’re going to fall further behind our sister communities who have these mass transit plans,” Sanders said.

It is a pitch he has made hundreds of times. He convinced every Jackson County city council to contribute toward a $750,000 “education campaign” that promoted the benefits of public transit in TV ads.

“Preliminary indications are supportive of commuter rail in my community,” said Mayor Carson Ross of Blue Springs. “It will help spur economic development, as well as get people off the highways into trains.”

Mayor Randy Rhoads of Lee’s Summit also sees the benefits but is unsure how it would fare among voters who have no use for rails or trails.

“Is it enough to carry the issue?” he said. “I’m not sure.”

The Mid-America Regional Council has been in on the planning from even before the alternatives analysis began in 2011. MARC’s Tom Gerend said that so far the only opposition he has heard is from people who live along the southeastern route, where trains haven’t rolled for decades.

Then again, it’s early. Sanders knows there will be some pushback once a formal proposal is announced.

Already he has tried to squelch at least one potential pocket of opposition with a promise to downtown property owners. Should his plan pass, the countywide sales tax would negate the need to collect the streetcar sales tax. The county tax would foot the bill.

“There’s no double taxation,” he said. “That’s our goal at this point.”

Bill Dietrich, the president of the Downtown Council, said his members appreciate the offer and embrace the concept behind the streetcar and commuter rail, hoping that synergy would bring more economic activity to the central city.

“We get it,” he said. “The streetcar needs a regional system, and the regional system needs the streetcar.”

Will a majority of Jackson County voters see it that way? We may never know. Things look good now for an August election, Sanders says.

But he’s not fooling himself either. Should discussions with the railroads stall or break down to the point a vote would be pushed back until next fall or beyond, he said, “then I think this project is effectively dead.”