Ten years ago an imponderable opportunity was laid at Kansas City’s doorstep by voters who approved investing in a light rail-based system. However, Kansas City’s government claimed it was “unworkable” and slammed the door on that opportunity, overturning that election.
Other cities have steamed ahead as their urban centers boom around rapidly expanding light-rail systems. Politico Magazine in the story “The train that saved Denver” describes how Denver was stagnating and how its investment in a citywide light-rail system (76 miles) helped launch that city out of the doldrums and into stardom. The story notes:
▪ “An entire $2 billion downtown neighborhood mushroomed up around the hub of Denver’s rapidly expanding light-rail system.”
▪ “The public’s willingness to approve major taxpayer investments has created a transit system that is already altering Denver’s perception of itself, turning an auto-centric city into a higher density, tightly integrated urban center that aims to out-compete the bigger, older coastal cities on the global stage.”
▪ “We’ve become a top destination for millennials, and Fastrack (light rail) is a significant part of that, says Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.”
▪ “We are talking about a culture transforming moment,” says Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. “Light rail has really moved Denver into the 21st century.”
By contrast, Kansas City is not booming, and its less than effective transit system isn’t moving us into the 21st century. Kansas City’s downtown streetcar line is great, but it doesn’t address the city’s lack of good, long distance-transit connectivity or to get people to jobs.
Kansas City must redesign its transit system. A quick quiet and clean citywide light-rail system (using electric minibuses to shuttle people to and from the rail stations) is the answer. It is a better value for the transit dollar to repurpose the lesser of the two bus sales taxes (the 3/8 -cent when it expires) for an efficient rail system that’ll be useful to everyone and provide the city with a major selling point to attract jobs, businesses, residents, manufacturers and conventions.
Fortunately, coming late to the game has advantages for Kansas City:
▪ We can employ the latest high-tech, streamlined and low-weight trains.
▪ We can secure federal matching funds from the new federal transportation bill.
▪ We can forge a masterpiece in urban planning by designing our beautiful, efficient light-rail system into a beautiful, efficient new single-terminal airport, the new Twin Creeks Neighborhood in the Northland, and into the new Cerner employment center at Bannister Road.
No one can doubt building a successful 40-mile, light-rail system will be an immense challenge requiring the input and cooperation of many. If approved by voters, the initiative is inherently flexible. The council has the authority to amend the plan if needed.
So if Kansas City wants to be a world-class city, it will have to invest in a world-class public transportation system. Nowadays, people expect one. And without one, we aren’t going anywhere.
On Nov. 8, Kansas City has a second chance to go somewhere — toward a more green, prosperous and transit-oriented city.
Light-rail ballot Question No. 3 is Kansas City’s mechanism to get us there.
Clay Chastain, of Bedford, Va., is an electrical engineer and a longtime advocate of light rail in Kansas City.