Government & Politics

Jackson County, ATA to buy rail corridor to connect with Katy Trail

Should the $52 million deal go through, the new link would make it possible to someday hop on a bike almost anywhere in the metro area, connect to the new trail on existing paths and ride all the way to St. Louis.
Should the $52 million deal go through, the new link would make it possible to someday hop on a bike almost anywhere in the metro area, connect to the new trail on existing paths and ride all the way to St. Louis. The Kansas City Star

A decades-old dream of connecting Kansas City with Missouri’s cross-state Katy Trail gained major momentum Wednesday when Jackson County and the area’s transit agency announced the purchase of a rail corridor from Lee’s Summit to near the Truman Sports Complex.

Should the $52 million deal go through, the new link would make it possible to someday hop on a bike almost anywhere in the metro area, connect to the new trail on existing paths and ride all the way to St. Louis.

Commuter rail service could also use the current corridor, when and if financing is found for that project.

Katy Trail 1001

For now, the possibility of a trail later this decade was enough to delight trail enthusiasts.

“A trail system stretching across the state, connecting St. Louis and Kansas City, has been our dream,” said Brent Hugh at the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation. “This is the last major piece needed to turn that dream into a real cross-state trail.”

Officials chose Arrowhead Stadium to announce what they called a historic partnership between the county and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, which coordinates and manages most area bus service.

The bistate transportation agency’s involvement is new. Jackson County has had a $60 million option since early 2014 to buy 19 miles of unused rail corridor from the Union Pacific Railroad Co. Some 17.7 miles of it is along the former Rock Island line between the stadiums and Lee’s Summit. The rest included two pieces in Independence.

The newly announced deal does not include the Independence track, which reduced the price.

Under the agreement, Jackson County will borrow the money to buy the rail corridor, but the ATA will share equally in making debt payments totaling $2.8 million annually for 30 years.

The county Legislature set aside money for its first payment months ago in the county budget, long before the partnership with the ATA was brokered.

No tax increases are anticipated, officials said. Jackson County’s share will come from property taxes already collected annually for the county road and bridge fund. The ATA’s share will come from local tax dollars set aside in a capital fund that pays for buses, bus stops and the like.

“It won’t affect existing (bus) services whatever,” ATA President Joe Reardon said.

The corridor might eventually produce revenue of its own to pay some of the money being borrowed. The ATA might lease space beneath the corridor to companies to run fiber-optic cables. Also, the authority hopes to rent land on the edge of the corridor to complementary businesses, such as bike and coffee shops.

The corridor is 100 feet across at its widest point, County Executive Mike Sanders said.

Sanders expects the purchase to be finalized within four weeks. But it will take another six months to a year to get federal approval from the Surface Transportation Board, he said, after which work can begin on the trail.

Earlier estimates put the cost of building at $15 million. Some $10 million in federal transportation funds were set aside last year for the project through the Mid-America Regional Council.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James praised Sanders and Reardon for partnering the project, which he said will improve the city’s transportation network.

Trains haven’t run down those tracks since the Rock Island went bankrupt three decades ago. When the Union Pacific took ownership through a merger with another railroad, it considered reinstating freight service. Although that never happened, the UP for many years rebuffed proposals from trail advocates, who saw that corridor as one of the best ways to connect Kansas City with the Katy Trail, which now runs nearly 240 miles, from the St. Louis suburbs to Clinton.

But in 2012, the railroad changed course and started negotiating a purchase with Jackson County. Separately, the state of Missouri began building a trail along the Rock Island from Pleasant Hill in the southeastern corner of the metro area to where the Katy passes through the town of Windsor. That 47-mile stretch known as the Rock Island Trail is set for completion next year.

Jackson County and the ATA hope to be building their trail section in 2016, as well. Pleasant Hill is already closing a short gap between where the state’s trail ends and the county/ATA trail would begin.

Trail advocates were thrilled with Wednesday’s announcement.

Eric Rogers, executive director of the advocacy group BikeWalkKC, called the news “awesome” and said, “It’ll be a big step forward for transportation, economic development and bicycle tourism.”

It was also welcome news to proponents of rail mass transit.

Several years ago, Sanders considered asking voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax to finance a $650 million, multimodal transportation system that would have included that trail extension, express buses and commuter rail from eastern Jackson County to Third and Main streets in Kansas City, where it would connect with the streetcar.

The project stalled in 2013 when Sanders failed to get the track usage agreements needed from multiple railroads to make it work.

But purchasing the corridor could revive that project, Sanders said, making it possible to reopen those discussions. Having the land in hand might also make receiving federal transportation dollars more likely, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said.

“This partnership shows the federal government what local communities can do with leaders like Mike Sanders and Joe Reardon,” the Kansas City Democrat said in a prepared statement. “Now it is time for the federal government to do its part.…”

Longtime Kansas City rail transit advocate Kite Singleton thinks the new streetcar will have residents clamoring for additional rail options once it’s up and running.

“When people feel the flesh and kick the tires,” they’ll be willing to pay for more, he said.

There’s one immediate benefit of the deal, Sanders told a business group last week in anticipation of its announcement. Lee’s Summit and Raytown residents living near the corridor no longer have to fear that the Union Pacific will ever run noisy freight trains through their neighborhoods.

“The great fear was ‘click and clack, click and clack’ and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Sanders was quoted in the Lee’s Summit Journal as saying.

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738.

Related stories from Kansas City Star