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Starter Route in Kansas City Could Inspire a Regional Light-Rail System

In almost every major metro area that builds a downtown light rail line, suburban commuters get interested and the city ends up with a regional system.

By Brad Cooper

(Originally published in the Kansas City Star on November 3, 2007.)

Open your mind to the seemingly impossible.

Kansas City builds a hip new light-rail line. Suburban commuters wonder: How can we get that?

Suburban leaders, long unconvinced that light rail is worth the cost, get interested. And Kansas City ends up with a regional system.

It could happen — it has in almost every other major metro area.

Other cities have proven over and over that once an area gets a taste of the transit high life, there's no stopping it.

Building a starter line "would inspire people and make them feel that this is something that can happen," said Lee's Summit Mayor Karen Messerli.

Last week, based on a consensus found in four months of interviews, The Kansas City Star offered a proposal for how a starter line could be built soon with local funding.

This week, the newspaper examines a number of ideas for how a starter line might grow into a regional system.

Possible routes include following State Avenue in Kansas City, Kan., along Interstate 35 into Johnson County and tracking Interstate 70 into eastern Jackson County.

None of these various expansions, based on interviews and transit studies, is favored by everyone or is certain to be built.

And many key factors will need to be decided in years to come, especially funding. Paying for such a massive system is costly and complex, especially because regional funding can so far only be approved on the Missouri side of the metro area.

Rail lines could end up being commuter trains driven by locomotives running long distances, electric streetcars running short distances, high-speed light rail — or a combination of all three.

Unlike the consensus that is building behind a starter route in Kansas City, little agreement has formed yet on a regional system, and many Kansas suburban leaders think light rail may simply cost too much.

But a starter line of some sort in Kansas City seems more certain all the time. City Hall is trying to decide how to tackle an effort to repeal the Clay Chastain plan that voters approved last year, while a citizens task force is expected to propose a replacement plan this week.

And some leaders are already looking ahead to a regional system.

Since taking office earlier this year, Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser has been working mayors on both sides of the state line, trying to woo them to the benefits of regional light rail.

So vital is the issue to the area economy, Funkhouser recently told an audience, that he has practically bet his political career on moving the region toward light rail.

Mariner Kemper, chairman of UMB Financial Corp., has seen how light rail works and can grow in Denver, where he is based.

"It's an important infrastructure item for the region as it continues to grow," Kemper said. "Having light rail will become very, very important."

Obstacles

For sure, there will be difficulties, and even optimists think it will be at least 20 years before the region sees a built-out light-rail system.

For example, there are a number of ways rail could branch out from a Kansas City starter line, but many of them pose challenges, including a spread-out employment base that's not easy to reach with one route.

"I don't think we have any corridors that are no-brainers," said Mell Henderson, director of transportation for the Mid-America Regional Council, which is now updating the region's official transit plan to account for rail and other ongoing projects.

"Any corridor we consider, there is work to be done," Henderson said. In fact, low density — the number of residents concentrated in one area — is the single biggest reason transit planners and elected leaders say rail won't work in the region right now.

They say there's just not enough of the type of development that mixes residential living with retail and offices that will create riders for a suburban rail system.

"We just don't have that type of housing out here," said Olathe Mayor Mike Copeland. "People pay a lot of money to own ground. They like their yards."

But cities are starting to move toward the kind of plans that can support light rail.

Mission has approved new laws for encouraging higher-density development and it's working to redevelop the old Mission Center Mall site into something geared for serving transit.

Overland Park is working on a plan to encourage higher population densities on Metcalf Avenue that would be coupled with a rapid bus route similar to the MAX line in Kansas City.

Meanwhile, Blue Springs has developed a downtown master plan that includes a transit village for residents who walk or frequently use public transit.

Charlotte, N.C., is cited as an example of how this area might increase density and expand rail into the future.

There, planners identified five highway corridors radiating from the central city. Along those routes, the city required developers to pack more residences, offices and retail onto land near proposed rail stations. Between those corridors, in the wedges, there was room for your more typical suburban development.

In Dallas, light rail actually created density, said Doug Allen, the chief planner for Dallas Area Rapid Transit. Dallas started with a 20-mile line in the mid-1990s. By 2013, it will cover 90 miles.

"I wouldn't get up hung on, 'Boy, this is what our urban form is now,' " Allen said. "One of the reasons you do a rail system … is to increase density."

Local politics

Building a regional system will require leaders on both sides of the state line to decide that light rail is important. So far, Missouri leaders seem far more receptive.

"I think it is an idea whose time is coming," said Independence Mayor Don Reimal. "People are thinking about it and are trying to make it work."

It helps that they already have one head start. The Missouri General Assembly has given Jackson, Clay, Platte, Cass, Ray and Buchanan counties the ability to raise up to a half-cent sales tax to pay for transit with a public vote.

A similar measure was killed in the Kansas Legislature in 2006, partly out of fear the Kansas tax money would fund Missouri transit.

For Missouri, it might pay off to move ahead as it tries to gain a competitive edge on its Kansas counterparts.

"Absolutely," said Mark Huffer, general manger of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, the lead planning agency on light rail.

"We have two states competing against each other for jobs, even offering incentives to move jobs a matter of blocks. Light rail is going to be part of that."

Johnson County leaders don't flatly dismiss rail but talk more in terms of improving transit in general and building what's the most cost-effective.

They say that polling shows that residents want rail on I-35, but say that same data show a reluctance to support something so costly.

Johnson County Commission Chairwoman Annabeth Surbaugh says she supports light rail if Johnson County residents want to pay for it.

"I want a public transportation system," she said. "It doesn't have to be light rail."

That's the view of some other Johnson County leaders as well, especially if they can build a jazzed-up bus line that looks like light rail but runs at a fraction of the cost.

"Cost-effective isn't saying no transit," said Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach. "But it's not jumping onto something that's popular."

David Warm, the executive director at MARC, said he just doesn't sense that rail is a priority for Johnson County right now as county officials grapple with several needs, including new jail facilities.

"I just think that a decision to invest a lot of tax capacity in rail in Johnson County is an idea that's just not yet ripe," he said.

Over in Wyandotte County, however, rail is gaining prominence, said Unified Government Mayor Joe Reardon.

The Unified Government is already looking at a rapid bus line similar to the MAX on State Avenue, and some residents have suggested light rail on State.

Wyandotte County needs to be open to light rail, Reardon said. "Ultimately, light rail can fit into the transit plan for our community," he said.

Many suburban leaders think that if light rail is to grow, it will have to succeed in Kansas City. Get people excited about rail, and it's bound to spread.

Said Tedrick Housh, a Johnson County civic leader and a member of the Regional Transit Alliance: "I think a key to this in a nutshell is building small successes one at a time."