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Is regional transit really on the horizon?

By Ron McLinden

Light rail in Kansas City? "Regional" transit? County and municipal elected officials in three Missouri counties have been talking for almost a year, but it's getting so you have to be able to read their minds to even correctly interpret what they say in public.

Last Friday (November 14) the "Regional Transit Steering Committee" met at MARC to talk about how to go forward. Present were the following: Raytown Mayor David Bower; KC Mayor Mark Funkhouser; KC Councilman Russ Johnson; Riverside Mayor Kathy Rose; Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders; Presiding Clay County Commissioner Ed Quick; Platte County Commissioner Betty Knight; outgoing Clay County Commissioner Craig Porter; and maybe one or two other. Also present were MARC staff, some transit consultants, and several RTA board members, along with reporters from The Kansas City Star, the Sun, and the Wall Street Journal (The WSJ is reportedly doing a story on Kansas City — presumably with a focus on the Mayor, so nobody is looking forward to reading it.).

Sanders was the most outspoken, saying it was important that talk of regional transit be slowed down (so as not to heighten public expectations), and that the three county leaders would need a few months to work out "governance" issues related to regional transit.

Maybe so, maybe not. I've never been convinced that "governance" is a necessary issue. Just have the three counties each pass a tax to support transit, and then negotiate separate contracts with the KCATA to provide service. (Ten local municipalities already do it this way.)

Even though there was talk of rail on Friday, rail transit seems all but dead for now. Kansas City voters have just said NO to light rail. Commuter rail is either too costly or simply not feasible: existing rail lines are either too busy carrying the nation's freight, or they're in such bad shape that it would cost megabucks to get them in shape so commuter trains could run at a reasonable speed. Light rail in the RCP corridor makes sense, but it's not likely that regional voters would OK a plan that has rail in the core and just buses everywhere else. Thus, we appear to be "on the road" to a bus-only system — if we get any expansion at all.

Meanwhile, I've heard reports that the county officials are actually leaning toward a county-by-county approach to providing better transit service. Realistically, that makes sense — at least in the near term. More and better transit — beginning tomorrow morning — is what we need, not interminable day-dreaming about commuter rail or squabbling about what street light rail should run on.

Eventually we need to get back to a rail-based system — one that supports and catalyzes a more compact and high-quality urban environment where people who want to escape the drive-everywhere paradigm — and be part of the solution to rising energy prices and climate change — can live their lives.

In retrospect, maybe the real accomplishment of the meeting was that the three county leaders — Sanders, Quick, and Knight — made it clear that they are taking the transit issue away from Mayor Funkhouser and Councilman Johnson.

Ron McLinden is transit reliant by choice and is a member of the Regional Transit Alliance. His views are his own.

1 Comment so far

  1. northlander November 20th, 2008 9:29 pm

    Best plan yet with Sanders,Quick and Knight. This way each County could plan its own route. With less people in the way something could get done.No City Council ,R.T.A,M.A.R.C, and no A.T.A. Sounds like a plan.
    Buses now and streetcars later on.

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