Jackson County’s commuter rail plan runs off the tracks for now

Jackson County’s commuter rail proposal has suddenly stalled out, ending for now County Executive Mike Sanders’ hope of having a sales tax election this year to finance his $650 million, multimodal transit plan.

Sanders made the announcement Wednesday, citing a recent decision by Kansas City Southern. The railroad had previously agreed to allow commuter trains to run on its tracks from Blue Springs to near Third Street and Grand Avenue in the River Market area.

But Kansas City Southern changed its mind, insisting that Union Station be the final destination. Virtually everyone associated with the plan agrees the century-old terminal would be the best place for a downtown connection, but that’s an impossibility unless an agreement can be worked out with Union Pacific.

Union Pacific has for two years objected to sharing tracks with commuter trains in the narrow railroad trench leading up the station from the east unless it can be shown its freight business wouldn’t suffer because of it. Sanders said the plan had been moving forward with that in mind and he was surprised at the decision by Kansas City Southern, which changes everything.

“It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where this gets on the ballot in 2013,” Sanders said Wednesday. “It’s frustrating. This is something that could have transformed our city.”

A Kansas City Southern spokeswoman said the railroad strongly believes that such commuter service should serve Union Station. But a capacity study must be done first for those tracks jointly owned by Kansas City Southern, Union Pacific and other railroads, she said.

The railroad expects that study to be approved this week.

In addition to commuter rail cars ferrying passengers to Blue Springs and, in a second phase, Lee’s Summit, Sanders had hoped to finance a system of trails and added suburban bus service with a 1 percent sales tax.

Sanders said there is still a possibility that the plan could go forward next year, but it would mean that at least one of the railroads would need to change its position.