Local Columnists

Dave Helling: Clay Chastain’s light-rail obsession has hurt his cause

Dave Helling writes: Clay Chastain is back in Kansas City, pushing a light-rail plan that grows more unlikely every time he’s associated with it. Clay is Ahab, and transit his white whale, and his obsession has hurt his cause more than helped it.
Dave Helling writes: Clay Chastain is back in Kansas City, pushing a light-rail plan that grows more unlikely every time he’s associated with it. Clay is Ahab, and transit his white whale, and his obsession has hurt his cause more than helped it. The Kansas City Star

Kansas City’s favorite rock in the shoe, Clay Chastain, is back in town this week. He’s expected to appear at several news conferences and in court as part of his crusade for another vote on a light-rail plan.

It’s tempting to view the blitz as Clay’s last temptation — his final effort to convince the courts and city leaders to accept his vision for rail mass transit. If he could just get a vote this year, one wants to believe, Chastain would accept the verdict and fade away.

Not likely — Clay is Ahab, and transit his white whale. Mayors, city councils, reporters come and go, but Chastain’s obsession with light rail keeps him planted at the bow, scanning the sea, preparing another initiative petition, another lawsuit, another light-rail argument with the city where he once lived.

Clay Chastain will never go away. And this week it’s easy to conclude his obsession has hurt his cause more than helped it.

It might have been different. Fresh off the settlement of the Union Station lawsuit — his initial cause célèbre — Chastain’s focus on light rail might have prompted an important community discussion about the funding and design of mass transit in Kansas City.

Sure, his drawings were wacky and unrealistic, and his funding mechanisms absurdly confused and inadequate. But Kansas City had a chance to use his enthusiasm and focus to engage the community in a workable light-rail approach.

Instead — partly because of his style, partly because of hard-headed and misguided politicians — the discussion became about Chastain, not light rail. Indeed, the merits of light rail turned into a secondary concern, so much so that voters today probably have stronger opinions about him than they do about building commuter transit in the area.

Kansas City’s leaders want votes this year on an expanded streetcar system. Those votes will be difficult. Sales taxes are already high, and the benefits of a streetcar aren’t clear.

But the proposal may also be in trouble because Chastain has soured voters on any plan for rail transit — even though he actively opposes the streetcar in favor of his own plan.

Even if the court orders that plan on the 2014 ballot, Chastain’s general unpopularity may doom it.

There’s a price for this tangled debacle. For example, all three cities competing with Kansas City for the 2016 Republican National Convention have light rail.

You may be OK with that, or not. But Chastain’s crusade has clearly left light rail adrift with little hope of reaching the shore in his lifetime — or ours.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

  Comments