Jackson County takes big step toward commuter rail with option to buy Union Pacific tracks

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders’ campaign to build a commuter rail system got a big boost Monday when he announced an option agreement to buy a crucial rail corridor.

Sanders called the memorandum of understanding between the county and Union Pacific Railroad Co. the most significant milestone to date in the effort to connect Kansas City with its eastern suburbs by rail.

“What this does is make commuter rail for the first time in its history possible,” Sanders said.

The terms of the agreement would allow the county to buy two pieces of unused rail corridor totaling 19 miles. The biggest chunk, 15.5 miles, is the former Rock Island Line tracks between Lee’s Summit and near the Truman Sports Complex.

Besides being a possible route for commuter rail service, the corridor has long been seen as key to connecting Kansas City with the Katy Trail, the cross-state hiking and biking trail.

The other 3.5 miles is known as the Pixley Spur and extends east from near the Amtrak station in Independence.

The purchase price for both pieces would total $59.9 million, or about half of what the Union Pacific had initially asked for the property at the start of nearly two years of negotiations.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, said he will seek federal money to cover some or all of the purchase price. Sanders said he was betting on the latter.

“I think we’ve got a real shot that we can get the full $59 million,” he said, adding that no county tax dollars will be used to buy the rail corridors.

The Union Pacific has also agreed to give up any rights it might hold to a 1.9-mile chunk of rail corridor between the Lake City area and the Independence Power & Light generating plant.

More work needs to be done before commuter trains connect eastern and southern Jackson County with the Kansas City streetcar line now under construction. But Sanders said the agreement now makes it a real possibility.

“Until today, it was just lines on the map,” he said.

Sanders praised the railroad for its willingness to let the county buy the properties. Railroads typically prefer to hang onto surplus rail corridors in case they want to reactivate freight rail service along them later.

Also, the railroad agreed to three other conditions that Sanders said were favorable. The county did not have to pay anything for the option, the railroad will allow the county to make payments on the purchase without interest, and it has agreed to talk about the county’s possible use of an active line that might connect a commuter rail system to downtown.

Monday’s announcement gives new momentum to a commuter rail plan that stalled last year.

As 2013 began, Sanders was eyeing a sales tax election for later in the year to finance a $650 million transit plan for rails, trails and bus service. But last March, he announced there would be no election that year because of difficulties negotiating with the Kansas City Southern.

Earlier, the Kansas City Southern had seemed willing to let run commuter trains run on its tracks to Blue Springs but then changed its stance, Sanders said at the time.

Sanders said Monday that the agreement with the Union Pacific gives the county the beginnings of an alternate route to Blue Springs.