Sunday, November 4, 2007

Let’s talk about light-rail, Kansas City

If you live anywhere in the KC metro area and you are blissfully unaware that we have been feuding over light rail for a year, well, you likely didn’t get to this blog from a bookmark.

Light-rail in Kansas City is going to be a featured topic on this site for the near future. Today, I’ll introduce it, and give an overview of the financial hurdles we have to overcome.

I love trains

Let me state up front that I am unabashedly pro-train. Almost didn’t move here because the city didn’t have a train. I have voted for every single light rail proposal that has been on the ballot since I moved to this city in 2001 and registered to vote at the Westport branch of the public library (where my husband went for storytime as a tot in the 50’s, about the time they tore out the last streetcar line) a couple of hours after the coffeepot was unpacked.

I refuse to let the perfect be the enemy of the good in regards to public transportation. I voted for the proposal last November giggling all the while and knowing the gondola was a pipedream that was never gonna happen, and I actively wondered what was in the pipe when Chastain dreamed up that part of his plan.

But the city administration wanting to take a mulligan on the whole election pisses me off to no end. We voted for a train. Get your asses busy writing some grant proposals already, and taking other concrete steps to make it happen. A full freakin’ year has slipped away while y’all have bickered like 12-year-old girls.

It gets my hackles up that the city administration has put all their effort into remaining deadlocked for an entire year. I’m annoyed that, out of a sense of the public’s frustration, the city's major newspaper put together a viable plan (who would know better how pissed off the public is than the folks who read the submissions to the letters to the editor?) And let’s talk about that for a minute. I give the Kansas City Star a hard time on a regular basis. I have no intention of letting up on them in other areas just because they stepped up like menches on this issue. Every time I catch them stepping on McClatchy’s fine reporting to soften implications of malfeasance against the Missouri GOP, I’ll give ‘em hell about it. If they ever get all puffed up and try to charge four bills a year for their website again, I’ll give ‘em hell about that, too.

So when they do something right, I am honor-bound to give them their due. Some entity with juice had to take a bold step and break the deadlock that Kansas City politics is famous for. (Say what you will about the Pendergast political machine – but stuff got done when his machine ran the show. The building I live in was constructed as a Pendergast patronage project, and it is possibly the best-constructed and most well-appointed brick walkup in the entire city. And an interesting and related aside, the public transit system as it exists today was, apparently, designed for the people who live in this building.)

For a solid year, since the election last year, the powers that be have squabbled. The results of the vote were shocking – I figured it would be like every other proposal and me plus twelve other cranks would vote for it, they would make fun of us for a couple of weeks on Ruckus, and that would be that. Then holy hell! It not only passed, gondola and all, it passed overwhelmingly! Woody Cozad is still, a year later, completely apoplectic.

Kansas City is unique in a lot of ways. There are two states and somewhere between eight and ten counties, depending on how you define “metro area” There is a hodgepodge of local governments, every last one of them antagonistic to all the others, the only thing they can all agree on is that they all resent the hell out of every penny that their citizens leave in KCMO. Herding cats is an understatement.

The Star did a bit of research (which is what newspapers are supposed to do) and found evidence that in virtually every instance of an urban area adopting a starter line in the heart of the city, the suburbs get a taste of public transit done right, they get jealous, and the lines expand. $3.00 a gallon gas, added to an undeniable awareness of the effects of anthropogenic global warming, and the demand for efficient and reliable public transit is bound to accelerate.

Only a few dinosaurs like Cozad are flat-out opposed to light-rail no matter what. I say lets just ignore them.

Which brings us to funding

A starter line in KCMO is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. A regional system would cost billions. But it turns out that we might be closer to footing the bill than one might think.

Of course, there are obstacles. Among the highest hurdles to clear: Kansas political leaders want Kansas money to stay in Kansas, and they are skeptical that rail transit is the best option. But other communities, namely Seattle, have overcome such parochial concerns and learned to work together for the betterment of the community.

Let’s look at potential revenue streams.

Local funding for a starter line will initially have to come from KCMO and North Kansas City. North KC is essentially an industrial area that sits between the Missouri river and Kansas City North. NKC has a very low residential population, employing many times their population in the businesses that operate there. It simply stands to reason that the area would benefit from light rail – employees who are discouraged from looking for employment outside their immediate area by high gas prices would suddenly find the options of employment in NKC more attractive. Additionally, we get some very active weather. Employees who drive to work would be les likely to call in when the roads are covered with snow and ice if they only had to get to a train station, and not all the way across the river.

Kansas City Kansas is another potential partner. Western Wyandotte County is booming, and the county looks to have $20 million available by 2013 in new taxes from development projects, and Joe Reardon, the Mayor of the Unified Government of KCK and Wyandotte County has indicated that some of that could be used for transit.

Regional taxes. Missouri has agreed to give it’s counties the option to pass a half-cent transit sales tax, but the initiative failed in Kansas in 2006. Missouri may go ahead and pass the tax without waiting for Kansas. A regional tax could potentially produce a significant amount of money for transit improvements and expansions. The Star reported that a metro-wide half-cent tax would produce $134 million a year. That would be sufficient revenue to finance a $3 billion construction effort.

State funding. Dream on. Kansas only spends $6.2 million per year in public transportation funds, and Missouri spends even less, a mere $4.2 million, and Missouri has over two times the population and two major, bi-state metropolitan areas with their urban cores in Missouri. Both states have Republican state legislatures that are foaming-at-the-mouth insane about taxes. Kansas is locked in at their current funding level until 2009, but Missouri, whose highway monies are limited by the state constitution would be very difficult to squeeze another dime from.

Federal funding is most likely to be a viable source of much-needed revenue in the future. If federal funds are sought for a starter line, it would delay the project by a couple of years. No matter how the starter line proceeds, federal funding will certainly be pursued in the future for system expansions.

Getting a starter line going on our own could help with the effort to obtain federal funds in the future. Competition for light-rail funds is strong now, and only expected to intensify in the future as communities look to light-rail to solve transit needs.

I think the time to strike was seven years ago, when the iron was hot, gas prices were still under $1.50 per gallon, and the competition for federal funds wasn’t so fierce. But that’s just me doing the “I told you so!” dance again. Since we didn’t, and got a MAX express bus line instead, we need to act now.

Next up: More on obstacles to progress, and the obstreperous nature of our local politics.

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