KC Light Rail

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Union Station: An intermodal dilemma

Like many issues, the debate about Union Station's role in a regional transit system is basically all sides talking past each other assuming they are in total opposition. In reality, there is common ground in the way an alignment along Grand can connect with future modes that might — or might not — terminate or pass directly through the station's historic footprint. We examine all of today's scattershot connectivity, but we ultimately leave it to you to decide if using the existing station will best serve the intermodal needs of Kansas City.


Air - KCI is 20 miles from Union Station, a path sparsely populated by both jobs and people. No direct transit connection exists between the two today. One bus route (#129) connects the 10th & Main transit center on weekdays before 6 p.m. LA's FlyAway service is a good model for KC, and now Denver's far-flung DIA has a solid bus option as well. A recent article noted that KCI's passenger base is spread out, presenting another hurdle for inclusion in a light rail line. A commuter rail connection from the station to the airport would require a lengthy new connection — cheaper per mile than light rail, but missing the loop — to the BNSF freight line running northwest from Parkville. About 11 million passengers passed through in 2007, but that number will surely decline in 2008.

Urban bus - Direct connections to Union Station are available. While most nearby KCATA routes favor transferring in the loop or at Crown Center, the MAX makes a stop at the station. The JO's suburban routes stop at the station — only during weekday rush hour — but after making stops in the loop. The top connecting point for all existing bus routes is the loop: western routes typically use 10th & Main, eastern routes typically use the area along Grand. A significant revision of routes is planned to coordinate with the starter line, but no consolidated transit center has been proposed. While light rail planners consider the strip from the river to the Plaza as the area with job density, the densest portion is the downtown loop.

Intercity bus - Greyhound and Jefferson Lines — both more popular than you think — serve passengers from a modern facility at 12th & Troost, with easy access to the interstates. Upstart Megabus stops only at the 10th & Main transit center. Another low-cost carrier, El Conejo (no website?), makes stops at a facility on Southwest Boulevard. Like all mass transit modes, ridership is rising after years of decline. No direct transit connection exists between the two; one transfer in the loop is required. The new Troost BRT project will skirt Greyhound by three blocks, while the current #25 stops right at the corner seven days a week. Is there adequate space on Union Station's grounds to accommodate intercity bus bays along with everything else?

Intercity rail - Amtrak provides the only mode that serves Union Station exclusively. A single passenger platform and two tracks are north of the original concourse in the same trench that houses freight tracks. 117,155 people used the Kansas City station in 2007 (boardings and alightings), a number on the rise in 2008. Years of redevelopment have rendered the original east-west track configuration useless: any direct connection from a north-south light rail would have to come from the streets above.

Taxi - A taxi stand serves the area along the southern border of nearby Washington Square Park, and taxis generally wait to meet Amtrak passengers in front of the station (the same applies at the Greyhound station). Newer pedicabs rarely stray outside of the loop.

Bike - No connected bike lanes, dedicated trails, or lockers exist near Union Station today, although that could change if the KC Trails plan ever gets moving. City buses have two-position bike racks and Missouri-sponsored Amtrak trains allow unboxed bikes for a $10 fee, offering some options for connections at the station today (no such luck on intercity buses). Did we mention it's uphill in three of four directions?

Pedestrian - Six lanes of fast-moving traffic make crossing Main Street at Pershing a daunting task, especially considering how family-friendly the area is intended to be (we won't even talk about approaching the station from Broadway). The sweeping vistas we all know and love make for long walks to just about anywhere except via the freight house pedestrian bridge. Can the pedestrian experience around the station be fixed? Does that even matter if most connections were to bus or rail? Did we mention it's uphill in three of four directions?


Commuter rail - Commuter rail has been more of a topic of late, but Mayor Mark Funkhouser's original concept had service running on Kansas City Southern's tracks, which lack a direct connection to the station (a mixed message coming from such a staunch proponent of the station-as-hub idea). Kansas abandoned a commuter rail plan along the busy I-35 corridor last year — which would easily terminate at the station, but could also terminate in the River Market for a single-seat ride east and north. Does it make sense to send all commuter rail riders to Union Station when a majority of them will need to backtrack or transfer for a one-mile ride to work in the loop? Or can we handle two urban commuter rail terminii like New York, Chicago, and Boston, especially if they're linked by light rail?

Light rail - Grand Boulevard is two blocks from the eastern edge of Union Station. The Link, an elevated and enclosed walkway, connects the station to Washington Square Park, Crown Center, and two large hotels. Streetcars once covered the area, but only a handful of routes stopped adjacent to the station on Main Street. The study area has no existing north-south freight rail tracks, so any direct connection to the station would have to run perpendicular from the streets above (although the original 2006 Chastain plan had light rail — and gondolas — running through a closed Penn Valley Park and connecting with the west end of the station).


More plan details…

Prime Buzz has a good recap of the operational and cost details from this week's light rail presentations to the City Council. We've added a few more details that were mentioned that didn't make their post:

– The new 3/8-cent tax would be exempt from TIF.
– Operation would not require any general fund support.
– Construction would not require the city to issue or back any of the project's debt.
– Cost estimates represent the 5-10% design level.
– Project costs include construction of a BRT line on Prospect (so by the time construction is complete the line will be fed by at least three BRT lines — State, Troost, and Prospect avenues).
– Locations for a 15-acre maintenance facility have been scouted, but no final decisions made.
– Platforms will be limited to hosting 2-car trains, so any increase in capacity would require shorter headways (not longer trains).
– North Kansas City has indicated they may synchronize their sales tax vote with KCMO.
– Ridership estimates will be available prior to the November vote.
– The Downtown Council was present to confirm their support for the project.

No indication of when any of this information will be formally released to the public or even when it will appear on the KCATA light rail website (which hasn't been updated since April?).


Like everything else, light rail costs rise

Today's article in the Star outlines a revised cost estimate for the starter line and the reasons for the jump:

1. Materials costs (steel, asphalt)
2. MoDOT (rebuilding the Vivion/I-29 interchange)
3. Regional planning (larger maintenance facility)
4. Planning and design services

It's also important to note that the part of Kansas City that generates the most sales tax revenue (we've been told at least a third) will get the priciest portion ($123 million): the Northland. Federal funding is key, as it was before, but now we have the potential for new streams of funding — via climate change legislation — if Congress and the next administration come through in the next few years (both leading candidates at least acknowledge human causes for global warming as fact).


You wouldn’t use light rail to the airport anyway

The Star presents a very detailed analysis today of why you probably wouldn't ride light rail to the airport even if you had the opportunity… hardly anyone else does. Honestly, we thought some of the other city figures would be higher considering how easy the connection is — only 15% of passengers at DC's Reagan airport arrive via Metro, arguably one of the fastest and easiest rail-to-airport connections in the US… and one of the worst cities for driving. Even super-green Portland sits at 6% of airport passengers, another convenient connection.

It's good to see the data laid now out so Northland interests who see an airport link as critical for the starter line will realize the cost-benefit is very, very low. Perhaps by the time we're ready to expand the system, we'll know whether we're getting a new terminal south of the existing runways that will save us about 8 miles of rail (and at $50 million a mile, that's nothing to sneeze at). In the interim, we're better off implementing express bus service that terminates at several key points throughout the metro and runs 7 days a week.


Councilman Russ Johnson’s light rail compromise

Read about it here. We'll post commentary once we're able to see today's working session for ourselves.


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.


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