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Regional talks inch forward to June 20

Mayor Mark Funkhouser's regional transit concept is inching forward after yesterday's initial public meeting with regional officials. A new regional steering committee was established with subcommittees for the election, governance, and routes. The deadline for those committee discussions is June 20.

The big decision is, of course, the election. It trumps all others because of the late start for these discussions and the looming August deadlines for submitting questions for a November ballot. November is critical and also was promised by the City Council, which includes the Mayor, after repealing the original citizen initiative ("Chastain") plan.

We posted yesterday on our issues with the route. While there were many, it concerns us that each county commission will be adjusting the map to make sure their constituents are well served. We encourage those leaders to move quickly and maintain a big picture to preserve momentum and the tight schedule.

We also strongly encourage the Mayor to televise all remaining public meetings. If he wants to expedite the process of engaging the public, live or recorded proceedings for transit discussions are critical to ensuring transparency and direct communication to potential November voters.

UPDATE: Video coverage from KMBC. Also, the suburban angle from the Lee's Summit Tribune.


Analysis: The Mayor’s Plan

Just in time for tomorrow's Big Day Out, we offer an independent analysis of Mayor Mark Funkhouser's regional transit plan. We've chunked the plan up into segments (some about modes, administration, connections, etc.) to aid discussion. Here we go!

Light Rail: Obviously the thing we care about most and we will say we are very disappointed. It's not that the light rail portion of the plan isn't interesting, it's just not what's already being planned. No questions asked, the mayor must swap out his line for the one underway at the ATA. Our biggest beef? First and foremost, people today don't come from the Northland to destinations along Troost. While there are major Social Justice points scored by sending the line east of Grand at Crown Center, it just doesn't make practical sense for connecting residents and visitors with job density and cultural amenities in the Main Street corridor.

Basically, don't make people coming from north of the river transfer to the streetcar to get to the Plaza. Bad move.

A simple change would be to put the modern streetcar on Troost — instead of Main — from Crown Center to 47th (about 3.5 miles), where it could have an effect more like that of Portland's streetcar (an urban circulator) and connect with the southern tip of the current ATA route. Think of it as a big transit oval circling midtown that wouldn't require people to go downtown first to make a connection. Troost BRT could still run in the corridor offering connections to Truman Medical Center on the north and Three Trails (formerly Bannister mall) on the south.

One last thought: Terminating the spine at Cleaver and Troost while skirting the Plaza would do nothing to attract a future light rail connection with Kansas. BRT is already in planning stages along Metcalf with a planned connection to the Plaza or downtown.

Commuter Rail: We love the idea of commuter rail. It has its detractors and certainly doesn't control sprawl, but it's ideal for a cities where long commutes need transit with dedicated right-of-way to be competitive. Light rail and streetcars in all proposals would run in the street, either in dedicated lanes or with traffic, thus making them susceptible to slow-downs over long distances. Commuter rail lines can eventually be electrified (see Denver) and can also generate Transit Oriented Development around stations.

A solid commuter rail plan could easily spur involvement from Kansas, who has fiddled with I-35 commuter rail studies for decades and decided on BRT running on the shoulder. This would be a huge boost to downtowns in Lee's Summit, Blue Springs, Grandview, and Liberty — especially if the services proved popular enough to offer weekend and evening trips (see Naperville, Illinois).

We applaud Kansas City Southern's push for this part of the plan and hope it is the one portion that continues unscathed after Friday's meeting. Few railroads are so welcoming for commuters to use their facilities.

Airport: No regional transit plan should be complete without strong connections to other modes, namely Kansas City International Airport. Today's paltry #129 doesn't cut it for anyone except the girl who works the day shift at the Starbucks counter in Terminal A. The Mayor's plan provides nothing worthwhile and that will surely change when Platte County commissioners are through kvetching. The Express Bus concept along MO-152 from Metro North makes the ride way too long for most of the metro. Express or local buses connecting from Union Station and the northern terminus of the light rail spine make much more sense (see LAX FlyAway).

Governance: A bit of a yawner to read through — org charts! — but we like the concept of elected officials overseeing the newly-proposed tri-county transit governing board. It fits with Funkhouser's accountability theme and helps suburban leaders get over the KC=corruption perception that dogs regional collaboration.

Next Steps: Having to wait until all of the required regional officials get on board will be yet another test of patience for transit advocates and Kansas City voters. The Mayor should keep his promise (our word, not his) to not derail the current light rail effort and not trample all over the good BRT work being done by MARC and the ATA along Troost, Prospect, State, and North Oak. If anything, the mayor's plan put transit on the front page of the papers, something the ATA plan has been unable to do lately.

Regardless, the polling results make us confident that voters will make the right choice in November and advance transit in the entire metro, whether it be by baby step or giant leap.


Clay 58%, Jackson 52%, Platte 52%

Okay, now look up and read those percentages one more time. We'll wait…

That's the level of support for a new 1/2-cent regional sales tax on the Missouri side of the KC metro, according to new polling data obtained yesterday by the Kansas City Star.

For those not familiar with Kansas City's geography, the urban core is in Jackson County, which is south of the Missouri River and largest in population; the suburban Northland is spread between next-largest Clay and mostly-rural Platte counties north of the river.

Now, a few more numbers: $132.19 and $3.79. That's the price of a barrel of oil for July delivery and the price of a gallon of 87-octane gasoline in the city, respectively. As analysts have already trumpeted, we'll be seeing $4 on station signs before you know it.

Add to the recipe one indisputably historic November election — when this question (or the local funding one, which only polled at 42% support earlier this year) will appear on the ballot — and you've got a perfect storm for light rail and improved transit in Kansas City.

The support in the Northland was only made more obvious last weekend when we participated in a 13-mile group walk from North Kansas City to Prairie Village. Looking for a way to get to the starting point from downtown, we discovered that there was no Sunday bus service that crosses the river. And you can forget hopping a bus in idyllic Prairie Village on any day, let alone a weekend. For the record, the 10-minute walk across the big-shouldered Heart of America bridge was pleasant on a traffic-free Sunday morning.

So back to the poll numbers: Why release them on a Friday before a long holiday weekend? Not sure there was any other choice, as KC Mayor Mark Funkhouser scrambles to secure support at a May 30 meeting with regional leaders. Hopefully, the data will be all these "leaders" need to change their tune and back what their constituents are telling them is quite obvious.

Either way, we get to vote. Those critical of the harried regional push should remember that there is a Plan B that faces stiffer resistance within the city's boundaries. Although that could likely change if another poll is conducted after we pass the $4/gallon mark.

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Light Rail in KC: Issues Recap

Chastain v. City: City wins! The Alternatives Analysis for a revised route continues unabated. Note to Hearne Christopher: Time to remove Chastain from your speed dial to make room for David Cook! Moving on…

Regional v. Starter Line: As an editorial in this week's Business Journal reminds us, this really isn't an either/or proposition. A starter line without a regional vision is dumb and a regional system without a first spike in the ground is impossible. Unfortunately, all of the rhetoric completely ignores the SmartMoves umbrella, even though the lines being drawn on the map are essentially the same. Here's an idea: Create a Plan A and B, then go with Plan B if Plan A fails! May we have our consultant fee now?

Midtown v. Downtown (and everyone else, for that matter): Not much has been made of this topic in the Old School Media, but it just may bubble over soon if 4th District Councilpersons Marcason and Gottstein avoid the tough work of calming down some very animated Hyde Park residents. Fear of encroachment, higher property taxes, and anything else that sounds Super Scary To Neighborhoods may be the thing that unravels the whole project… again. Believe it or not, the East Side "spur" debate is quietly resolving itself through good ol' communication (expect Cleaver, not Linwood). Take heed, Hyde Parkers!

Union Station v. Crown Center: Low on the list to most, but a few vocal proponents insist on the most direct connection possible with the only true bi-state success story (the Station is covering it's own expenses now, thank you very much). Our own informal polling suggests that it's wise to leverage the supposed support of the Hall clan — a first in KC light rail history — versus the symbolic gesture of a shorter walk to another mode of transit. We timed it ourselves and it's a five minute walk through The LINK to the Amtrak ticket counter; future commuter rail operations would likely terminate east of the actual station due to space constraints anyway. Our money's on Crown Center (with good signage pointing the way, never KC's strong point).

Grand v. Walnut v. Main: Oh, those poor parades full of dung-laden horses. Where will they go if light rail steals Grand? Probably the same place they went when we last had light rail (yes, streetcars are light rail… get over it) — it all peacefully co-existed, open-air streetcar-as-parade-float and all. But wait! Downtowners hatched an idea at a recent workshop to use Walnut between Union Station and the River Market as a transit-only corridor. Intended as a way to sway the conversation away from using Main and Walnut as a pair (northbound trains running on one street; southbound on the other — a remarkably dumb idea, but an official "option" nonetheless), it may take on a life of its own. Regardless, our money's on Grand, but expect to see lots of talk on how Walnut might work.


A new leader?

We've never been a big fan of Councilman Ed Ford's work on light rail. It's not like it was a bad record, it just wasn't lighting any fires. Today, Mayor Funkhouser replaced Ford as chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee with Councilman Russ Johnson.

To us, this is less about Ford's demotion than it is about Johnson's move into the spotlight. Although a bit cocky sometimes, his targeted questioning during committee meetings shows he has an eye for detail and complex, current issues.

So let the pundits wonder about Funkhouser's motives (a botched smoking ban, the Cauthen dust-up, too much focus on the starter line, Ford's own wish to be mayor), but we think it was a wise choice and even wiser to wait until after the bus tax passed.

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Vote yes for the bus tax

We've done more than our fair share of complaining about KC's bus service over the years — routes meander all over, light years behind on technology (SMS, anyone?), pathetic Sunday and absent night owl services, lack of connections to the 'burbs — but after spending those same years up close and personal with the system, you can bet one this is for sure: WE ARE GETTING A BARGAIN. Our sprawleriffic terrain makes for a incredibly tough challenge, especially when you consider we fund transit at a lower rate than almost any peer city (and state).

That's why the bus tax question is a no brainer and the arguments against its timing are misguided. Some light rail proponents are simply not confident enough that the situation this time is different: a shorter line (cheaper), running in the streets (no eminent domain), that crosses the river AND leans east (politics)… and let's not even talk about $110 per barrel oil (transit demand), and a Democrat on top of the executive heap (transit funding). Call November a perfect storm, and you'd be right.

So yeah, disregard the Architects and vote yes for the bus tax on April 8. Light rail will stand on it's own. As soon as our elected officials learn a bit more about transit, they'll stop thinking and talking about modes and focus more on the system as a whole.


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