KC Light Rail

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Archive for January, 2008

Does Light Rail to Prospect Even Make Sense?

By Ron McLinden

There are two reasons to build light rail. One is to move people more efficiently in an existing heavily traveled transit corridor. The other is to stimulate development in a reasonably viable urban corridor.

A cross-town light rail branch line east to Prospect might not serve either purpose. And because ridership projections are likely to be low, it might actually weaken Kansas City's case for federal funding.

Admittedly that's a provocative position to state, but I do so to illustrate that a decision about building a cross-town branch line is not to be taken lightly. Yes, going east in Phase One is important symbolically — almost as important as crossing the Missouri River. Troost has been a dividing line for a long time, and we want to break down that perceived barrier.

Still, is building a cross-town branch line the best use of the money? At nearly $50 million per mile, the 1.75 miles from Main to Prospect would likely cost $80 million.

What else could we get with that $80 million? Well, it would probably buy 30 or 40 miles of BRT (bus rapid transit) like MAX.

Planning for BRT on Troost is already underway and that line is to be in operation in 2009. BRT on Prospect is also being discussed in the context of the proposed cross-town light rail line, but planning for it is not yet scheduled. With $80 million, BRT could be up and running in the Prospect corridor, plus Blue Ridge, Independence Avenue, North Oak, and maybe one or two others, before construction even begins on light rail. BRT is cost-effective public transit.

Consider the proposed cross-town light rail line from a transit rider's standpoint. Most trips on this line would be to make connections to and from the major north-south bus routes — Prospect, Troost, Main (MAX), etc. Those connections are currently made on cross-town bus routes such as 27th Street, 31st Street, and 39th Street. Service on these routes is frequent, as is service on the north-south routes.

Riders headed Downtown on a Troost or Prospect bus from south of Brush Creek are not likely to give up a warm (or cool) seat on a bus and wait for light rail to complete the trip. Their bus is already going Downtown, and it's likely to get them there faster than if they transfer to light rail. What's more, because ridership on the cross-town light rail line will be low, service will be less frequent than on the existing east-west bus lines.

Park and ride? Will a northbound commuter on Bruce Watkins Drive choose to stop and park and board light rail at Brush Creek, just 6 or 8 minutes from Downtown? There's even less likelihood of park and ride from Prospect in the Linwood or 18th Street corridors since they are even closer to Downtown destinations.

So if the cross-town branch line doesn't serve a very useful transit function, how does it do as a development stimulus? Of the three principal corridors being considered, none is a standout.

The Brush Creek corridor looks good in that it makes a gesture toward eventual extension of light rail south along Bruce Watkins Drive. On the other hand, there's relatively little employment within easy walking distance of that corridor between Main and Prospect, and little housing. What's more, development opportunities are limited because it would be a "single-loaded" corridor east of The Paseo due to Brush Creek Park.

Eighteenth Street might look appealing because it would be convenient to locate a light rail maintenance facility near the ATA operations complex at 18th and Forrest. But much of that corridor is light industry, and not very amenable to the kind of residential redevelopment that would generate new transit riders. What's more — and ironically — 18th and Vine interests reportedly oppose light rail on 18th Street.

Linwood might make sense for redevelopment. In fact, Linwood could become a great urban boulevard if redeveloped with medium to high-density housing and supportive retail and services. But that would require buy-in from the Parks Board for a completely different character for Linwood — not a sure thing if their reluctance to embrace the Chastain plan is any indicator.

If a cross-town light rail line is to be included, the decision about where to put it needs to be done in the context of a full and realistic discussion of development potential — including an assessment of private sector interest. Choosing among the three options based on a popularity contest within the Citizen Task Force is not the way to do it. The ATA team and the City Planning Department need to collaborate with the respective communities (and potential developers) and develop sketch plans that have a realistic chance of being implemented. And the City Council needs to commit to incentives and policies that will assure that such development happens.

Without a hard-headed look at redevelopment potential, and assurance that light rail would play a key role in making it happen, it makes little sense to spend $80 million for a cross-town light rail line that would end up being little more than symbolism.

It might make more sense to build a shorter light rail line without the eastward branch in Phase One, and add BRT in corridors throughout the city. Such a package would likely have a lot more appeal to voters throughout the city.

Submitted for the sake of discussion.

Ron McLinden is transit reliant by choice, and serves on the board of directors of the Regional Transit Alliance. His views are his own.


A lawsuit, a bus tax, and a poll

That pretty much recaps the week in Kansas City's light rail saga.

But don't be dismayed, transit friends, when you hear reporters parrot the naysayers when poll numbers come back bad (New Hampshire? Arena tax? My, what short memories we have!). And don't let the council get you down as they continue sliding down the slippery slope of futzing with petition initiatives. Yes, why be glum when we have Clay Chastain to defend democracy?

At least we've figured out that the bus tax renewal will go on the April ballot. Oh wait! The lawsuit might affect that, too? Shiznit!

Time and the tide of public sentiment are on our side, so maintain your long view. Gas prices are either fluctuating wildly or going up and the supply of oil is going nowhere but down. Workers can't get to far-flung suburban jobs. The price of building highways has far exceeded what the US collects in use taxes. The ATA is woefully underfunded compared to our peer cities and The JO barely squeaks by on spare change found between Overland Park and Olathe’s sofa cushions. A Democrat will rule the roost in 2008 and Jim Nutter is not our mayor. Those moneyed conventioneers we’re shilling for expect transit when they arrive from bigger cities. We've been trumped by Charlotte and Norfolk… yes, Norfolk-freakin'-Virginia.

In short, there are lots of reasons to keep pressure on our elected officials to deliver.


Funkhouser and the November starter line

Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser made comments at today's Downtowners' monthly luncheon that a light rail starter line must be on the November 2008 ballot but "it needs to have a clear path to a regional system."

We applaud the Mayor for clarifying his stance to appear less like a roadblock and more like a long-term vision (it's mostly been semantics anyway, but this should indeed squelch his critics on the matter once and for all). While a KC-only starter line will require a larger tax increase for residents versus a regional tax from the onset, it follows the precedent set by most other cities who have entered the rail transit game late.

All it will take is the next decade of multi-million dollar developments along the proposed line for other municipalities to fall into place. When they do, the regional plan of a dedicated transit sales tax will be their price of entry no matter how big or small. This will bring a consistent transit funding approach and prove to the FTA that metro residents have "skin in the game".

Also in today's news, look for a federal gas tax increase recommendation for roads and public transit to heat up the presidential campaign. Will any candidate come out and endorse the recommendation?


Charlotte neighborhood leaders weigh in

It's been awhile since Charlotte's new light rail line opened, giving the locals time for form a solid opinion about the impact to their neighborhoods. We thought it was important to share since there will undoubtedly be someone between the river and Brush Creek who has a problem with light rail before the first foot of rail goes into the pavement.


KCK buses saved, Sunday service in doubt

Proving again that all politics is local, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County (nee KCK) has scored "an unspecified mix" of funding to keep their buses running. While many criticize earmarks and other types of "pork barrel spending" from Congress (in this case, U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore), those funds sometimes impact real people in very real ways. KCK had intended to offer Sunday service in response to citizen surveys, a critical item for this part of the metro that ranks high (along with the East Side) in transit dependency. No word on how the funding crisis will affect the State Avenue BRT project — still is the planning stage — since the FTA Small Starts program will only cover capital costs, not operating costs, of the improved (and thus more expensive) service.


Even more complicated than you thought

By Ron McLinden
Special to kclightrail.com

The more you learn about Kansas City's light rail planning process, the more you realize how complicated it actually is. Councilman Ed Ford describes it as having more "moving parts" than anything he's ever dealt with. I have a hunch Ford finds yet another moving part almost every day.

On January 3 the ATA brought Jeff Boothe to town to brief the City Council at its business session. With 25 years of experience in transit planning and advocacy, Boothe is an expert on light rail planning and the FTA's funding processes. He's also tuned in to transit advocacy, the role of rail transit in shaping urban development, and the in's and out's of building a winning case.

Some of the points that I picked up:

  • Before you build anything you need to know what you are trying to accomplish. (That was painfully absent from the November, 2006 ballot initiative, and it's been addressed only vaguely during the ATA's planning that's been done to date.)
  • Building a short, locally-financed starter line might actually hurt, rather than help get federal money for future extensions because ridership on the first segment can't be counted toward justifying extensions.
  • It's essential to have good city plans and policies in place to support light rail — they reinforce one another. (So far the City Planning Department seems totally absent.)
  • With a change in administration in Washington there will likely be changes in both the rules that govern how the FTA evaluates transit proposals, and the level of federal funding available. That will be driven, in part, by greater awareness of global warming and the important role that transit can play in making cities more compact and less car/oil-dependent.

Planning for light rail here will enter a formal "Alternatives Analysis" phase late this month or early in february. Alternatives Analysis (AA) is part of the NEPA environmental review process that's required for any federal funding. Most transit professionals say going through the process is good — whether you seek federal funding or not — because it forces the community to address key questions like "What do we want to accomplish with light rail?" and "Do we have sound plans and policies in place to support light rail?" and "Do we have a proposal that the electorate will approve?"

AA will begin with public meetings sometime in February to get at these issues, including a statement of "purpose and need" for light rail.

(Attention Citizen Task Force members: it might feel like starting all over, and there's no guarantee that the your recommendations will remain standing at the end of the process. So much depends on the purpose and need and how each of the alternatives to be considered meets that purpose and need.)

That's the bad news. The good news is that the proposal that ultimately goes to the voters (probably in November) will be more fully developed. Even more important, it'll almost certainly say how transit will be improved throughout the city, not just in one narrow light rail corridor. Voters will have an understanding, for example, that a light rail spine will be complemented by bus rapid transit lines (a la MAX) throughout the city.

There are also serious "political" hurdles. Some Northlanders say light rail is dead if it doesn't cross the river. Some in the minority community say it's dead if it doesn't go east to Prospect. But a light rail proposal that satisfies both of these mandates might have ridership projections that result in a "cost per new rider" — a factor that the FTA will consider in evaluating Kansas City's proposal against those of other cities — that looks worse than a phase one light rail project that doesn't cross the river or go east to Prospect. Thus, a Catch-22: a package that meets the political criteria might fail to get the federal funding needed to build it.

All of this leaves the issue of regional transit up in the air, of course. Nobody knows how that's going to play out, but it seems prudent to press ahead and not wait for some regional transit Godot to suddenly arrive and solve the entire transit problem.

Some citizens are extremely impatient and want to get light rail running as quickly as possible. But doing that might actually hurt prospects for federal funding for future extensions if it isn't thought through and thus falls short of expectations. Whatever light rail segment is done first, it has to be a "winning project," as Jeff Boothe says.

Some citizens totally distrust the City Council and/or the ATA. All I can say to that is, suspend your cynicism for just a while. Show up and get involved, and find out just how committed your public officials really are on the matter of light rail.

And bear in mind that it's a whole lot more complicated than petition carriers could possibly imagine back in 2006.

Ron McLinden is a life-long Kansas Citian and transit user, and serves on the board of the Regional Transit Alliance. His views are his own.


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