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Kansas Citians Consider Light Rail - Again


Kansas City, MO – In Tuesday's election, Kansas City voters will be asked to approve a three-eighths cent sales tax to build a new light rail system. City planners are calling it a starter route: 14 miles from Vivion Road to East 63rd street. North Kansas City voters face a similar question - they'll be asked to pitch in a half-cent tax. KC Currents' Sylvia Maria Gross looks into some of the arguments for and against this light rail plan, and starts out in the Northland.

GROSS: Dave Williams just got out of his car to buy some office supplies at a strip mall near the corner of Vivion Road and North Oak Traffickway. He says he'd be willing to give light rail a try - but the proposed system wouldn't take him where he's going.

WILLIAMS: This town is built for cars - everything's so spread out. I mean I live over by Antioch Mall. I just drove down to Njorthtown to eat breakfast. I came up here to get something in Office Max and I'm going to go up to Tiffany Springs and get something there pretty soon and I'm going to go back home.

GROSS: Would you be able to do that with public transportation? WILLIAMS: Probably not. I might.

GROSS: A few doors down, Cleo Speed drinks a cup of coffee outside the store where he works. He commutes from south Kansas City.

SPEED: I ride the bus to work every day, and if they had a light rail system that would probably be a little faster, I would probably take that. GROSS: Inside a nearby donut shop, Terry Wilks says Kansas City could benefit from light rail.

WILKS: We could use a good public system, and I've seen it in other cities where it works pretty well, and people use it regularly. Course I work just down the street, but I might take it downtown if it picks up right here because it's convenient for me.

GROSS: Carissa Bock works behind the counter. She says a stop here on Vivion Road could bring more customers. She herself commutes from Smithville, so the starter route wouldn't help her.

BOCK: If I had the choice to take the rail system. I don't know - it would just depend on safety issues. I won't take the bus because of safety issues, so . . .

GROSS: One of the concepts behind light rail is that it will attract more riders than the city's bus system. After turning down similar proposals for years, Kansas Citians approved a light rail plan in 2006. City council members said some of the specifics of that plan were unworkable, like the gondola over Penn Valley Park. So they repealed the measure and hammered out this proposal which runs through downtown along Grand and Main Streets. But now, the summer's soaring gas prices are down again. And the country's financial crisis might scare voters away from a big-ticket project, and the additional sales tax to pay for it. But Mayor Mark Funkhouser says now's the time to start a project like this. He recently gathered some city leaders at a press conference at the Municipal Auditorium.

FUNKHOUSER: As you can see, we've got hard-hats and safety vests. We want to talk about how light rail creates jobs. And there's a reason why we chose this location. The Municipal Auditorium was built at the height of the Great Depression. In times of economic uncertainty, Kansas Citians dug down, invested in their town and produced jobs.

GROSS: It would be about 2000 new construction jobs, Mayor Funkhouser says. A lot of the data on light rail come from the 30 other cities across the country with similar systems - including Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis and Denver. Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce President Pete Levi says we're already late to the game.

TAPE: LEVI: If we want to be the kind of community that attracts and retains young people, people who travel to other cities that enjoy the benefits of light rail, that enjoy the mobility that it gives to their community, Kansas City is going to have to offer that same type of transportation service as well.

GROSS: Besides attracting people who like an urban lifestyle, supporters hope light rail will wean drivers from their cars, which would be good for the environment. It's also supposed to serve people who already take the city's buses. Critics say this 14-mile track won't extend far enough to connect people in the central city to jobs in the Missouri and Kansas suburbs. But Mayor Funkhouser says he's working with other local mayors on a larger system.

FUNK: Commuter rail, light rail, street cars, bus rapid transit, buses. It will be the capstone of a regional system that will take people to jobs.

GROSS: Construction costs for the starter line are estimated at about 800 million dollars - they'll probably reach a billion by the time the trains start running in 2016.

ALLEN: Everyone loves the idea. It is indeed hip and cool - it's aesthetically appealing.

GROSS: Local business owner Greg Allen just doesn't think it's practical. He says the city already has an effective bus system, and hasn't produced numbers on how many people would ride light rail along the proposed route.

ALLEN: We have tremendous public spending challenges and needs in this community, we have 4 billion dollars plus in sewer work that needs to be done, we have all manner of infratand we don't have a billion dollars to spend on frou frou.

GROSS: Light rail supporters estimate that every dollar the city invests, will result in 6 dollars in new development along the route, including in some disadvantaged neighborhoods along east 63rd street. Allen says those estimates are exaggerated. He also thinks the plan works against Kansas City's overall design.

ALLEN: We are probably one of the least dense cities in the world. We were built on the basis of a parks and boulevards system. Our idea of things urban has tended to be green, has tended to be spacious. We kind of like elbow room.

GROSS: Whether it's streetcars or automobiles, transportation has helped defined Kansas City's landscape. On Tuesday, voters will get a chance to decide what's possible, and practical, for the next few decades.

Listen to a recent Q & A about the details of the light rail plan, which aired on Up To Date. Also, hear recent KC Currents' interviews about light rail with urban planner Christopher Leinberger and local architect Kite Singleton.

For more information:
KCATA Project Overview
Light Rail Supporters
Light Rail Opponents

This story was produced for KC Currents. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents Podcast.

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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