Public transit keeps rolling toward a more positive future

Work continued Friday afternoon along the streetcar line on Main Street in downtown Kansas City.
Work continued Friday afternoon along the streetcar line on Main Street in downtown Kansas City. The Kansas City Star

Kansas City’s under-construction streetcar line is creating traffic jams up and down Main Street. Downtown traffic crept along on Friday afternoon, dodging workmen, orange cones and newly laid track.

Ah, but what a difference, say, 15 months is going to make.

By early 2016, Main Street should be bustling with pedestrians eager to use the new two-mile line, which will run from the River Market to Union Station.

The progress being made downtown is just part of the positive picture that’s emerging of improved public transit in the Kansas City area.

Yes, it’s progress potentially fraught with pitfalls. Kansas City voters in August rejected a grand plan to lengthen the streetcar system. Local funds to complete other projects are still unavailable. And the mishmash of bus systems in the region still makes it difficult for passengers to conveniently travel long distances.

Still, clearly, the pieces are in place for public transit to revive the urban core and to help provide transportation to many more people in the suburbs.

Among important recent developments:

▪ Kansas City’s streetcars will offer plenty of convenient — and free — service.

The cars are scheduled to pass stops every 10 minutes during peak travel times on weekdays. Operating hours are long, too, from 6 a.m. to midnight from Monday through Thursday, and until 2 a.m. on Friday nights. Operating times will last from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

The high frequency of weekday trips especially should encourage people to use the streetcar, such as going to and from work or lunch.

The obvious downside: The streetcar can only be used for trips around downtown. Needed expansions will have to wait, probably until voters can get a new plan from City Hall in 2016 or 2017.

▪ Jackson County keeps taking strides toward buying an unused rail corridor that eventually would be used for walking and biking trails and — keep dreaming — for commuter rail years from now.

A recently announced federal grant of $10 million gives the county some momentum as it tries to come up with the estimated $60 million needed to complete the deal with the Union Pacific Railroad. County Executive Mike Sanders and other supporters now face months of trying to work out financial deals that could allow the county to borrow the necessary funds.

Getting to the construction of commuter rail running from Lee’s Summit and east Jackson County into the River Market remains years away. Public funding would be sought, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly as part of a larger public transit package for Kansas City and other communities.

▪ From the “will miracles never cease” category comes news of a responsible financial deal between Johnson County and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

Essentially, the county has agreed to eliminate its small transportation department next year and have the ATA manage the Jo bus system. The move could save up to $500,000 a year, allow Johnson County to expand its still-meager service and help both transit systems connect more of their routes.

Astute management of ATA operations — pushed by chairman Robbie Makinen — coincided with astute political moves on the Johnson County Commission, especially from commissioner Steve Klika.

In the future, it will take more public revenue and added cooperation among political subdivisions and transit agencies to make it easier for the public to get around this region.