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Top 12 transit stories of 2012

streetcarneighbors

Yours truly and Streetcar Neighbors co-founder Matt Staub were interviewed by KSHB at the final streetcar election party. Photo by Matt Kleinmann. Full video coverage by Transit Action Network.

 

2012 was absolutely a banner year for transit news in Kansas City. Here are the stories that captured the most attention:

1. Downtown streetcar fully funded. Two elections — one to form the special streetcar district, then a follow-up to actually fund the project — passed with strong majorities. Federal funding, initially expected in the form of a $25 million TIGER IV grant, instead came from two locally-programmed federal sources. Toss in a few cost-cutting measures and you have Kansas City’s first fully-funded rail transit project. Construction starts in 2013, with Phase 2 extensions already being discussed.

2. Bike share launch. Twelve stations, 90 bikes… modest, yes, but beating New York, LA, Chicago, and even Portland to the punch. One might question launching in the middle of a heat wave with little infrastructure to encourage cycling, but new non-profit Kansas City B-Cycle could not be deterred. One of the quickest and highest visibility projects to hit downtown in years, just in time for an Bronze designation as a Bike Friendly Community. Phase 2 expansion to Midtown and the Plaza starts in 2013.

3. Jackson County draft transit plans released. Self-propelled diesel vehicles running along I-70 to Oak Grove using existing tracks, with a second phase running along the Rock Island right-of-way to Lee’s Summit — the dream of County Executive Mike Sanders finally realized after years of talking to anyone who’d listen. Both corridors wrapped up most of their Alternatives Analysis work in 2012. A countywide sales tax vote on a comprehensive transit plan — that includes the two rail lines, more bus service, and a Katy Trail extension into the city — is expected in 2013.

4. KCATA service changes. Major changes to 54 bus routes, the first significant makeover of KCATA’s network in decades, were introduced in phases starting in 2012. Noteworthy changes include improved Main and Troost MAX frequency, service to Zona Rosa, and elimination/consolidation of underperforming routes. Improved service to KCI and a reconfiguring of bus travel through downtown are on tap for 2013.

5. Making the streetcar free to ride. The freshly-formed Kansas City Streetcar Authority voted in September to eliminate fares, at least initially, on the downtown streetcar. Initial ridership estimates assumed most riders would pay, so this change all but assures the line’s success. Turns out it costs money to collect money…

6. Transit education campaign. Commercials and billboards began educating Jackson County residents about the benefits of public transit over the summer. Funded collectively by the cities within Jackson County and administered by the Regional Transit Alliance, the goal is to help residents see how “transit works for us,” even if they don’t plan on using it.

7. Keeping Clay Chastain off the ballot. Chastain has again garnered enough signatures to get on the ballot with an even larger transit plan and the city has rightfully stood up and refused to put it on the ballot… so, of course, he sued, lost, and has appealed. That appellate court ruling is due in the coming weeks.

8. Transit ridership up across the metro. Boosted by a new student pass program (first UMKC, now Rockhurst) and an improving economy, ridership increased over 2011 on KCATA (5.50%) and The JO (8%) even as budgets were tightened and fewer services were offered.

9. The JO service cuts. Expiring/reduced federal funding, reduced state funding, and lack of political will all contributed to another year of service reductions and route eliminations for Johnson County Transit. While pro-transit County Commissioner Steve Klika did win in November, prospects aren’t good for The JO sticking around in its current form beyond 2014. Cuts takes effect in January.

10. October bus driver attacks. Two separate incidents, one of which went viral, were a reminder that bus drivers should be respected and not physically assaulted. Suspects in both crimes have been apprehended thanks to a quick public response.

11. TIGER I grant improvements. $10 million each for North Oak, Metcalf, and State Avenue, awarded in 2010. Service was improved on North Oak as part of KCATA’s recent changes, but challenges are ahead for Unified Government (State) and Johnson County (Metcalf) to uncover enough funding (and place-making) to make their services attractive to more than just the transit dependent. Ever stood around at 110th & Metcalf?

12. Independence breaks off from KCATA. While getting a lower price from vendor First Transit (who also operates The JO, which also split from KCATA in the 90s), the City of Independence has had a few startup issues with their local services. Hopefully 2013 will see improved interoperability with KCATA’s remaining Independence routes.

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The State of KC Transit

We haven’t posted in awhile, so we thought we’d take this lovely Saturday morning and dust off the old WordPress to provide an overview of current transit initiatives in the Kansas City metro.

Streetcar

Downtown Streetcar

After open houses in June, August, and September, the major questions about the streetcar route were answered: it will run on Main Street and will be a modern streetcar. The Regional Transit Alliance was even bold enough to drop a sample vehicle in front of Union Station (in the street, appropriately) and host an all-day “party” around it. That’s how much of a sure thing this project has been thus far.

As of today, the City is trying to convince downtown power players to go along with funding the line locally. The main proposal is to use a Transportation Development District, a state-enabled benefit district used in Missouri primarily to fund road improvements for strip malls. KCATA was successful in getting language added that specifically allows public transportation projects. Once property owners decide they can live with taxing themselves, all they need to do is convince a county judge and get a majority of registered voters within the district boundaries to approve and — BAM! — now you have enough funding for a downtown streetcar with no citywide vote required. A group of neighborhood leaders has also begun lobbying for the TDD.

Separately, the design and engineering phase will be paid for by citywide 2012 PIAC funds. Initial planning was paid for by a federal Alternatives Analysis grant. During design, federal grants may be available (as they have for other modern streetcar projects) for up to $25 million.

The price tag for the project is now $101 million for capital, and $2.8 million annually for operations between Crown Center and River Market.

Jackson County Commuter Rail

While some advocates bristle at Mike Sanders’ commuter rail proposal for Jackson County, we’re a fan. Why? A) Because it acknowledges what KC really is (one big suburb) and B) is the only transit proposal that addresses congestion. While I-70, MO-350, and US-71 congestion isn’t bad compared to other cities, the I-70 route is a curvy dinosaur that isn’t aging well and serious improvements are decades away. The other two corridors have rail assets that are underutilized and would add appeal to an I-70 line (and they are also served by limited commuter bus service today).

Some of the initial alternatives presented were actually express bus and light rail/streetcar options, proving that the project team is exhausting all options before going “all in” on commuter rail.

Word has it that Sanders has backed off an April 2012 election, and that’s a good thing since the study won’t be done until May. Since he isn’t running for statewide office, prospects look good for Sanders sticking around to spearhead a countywide sales tax election in 2013. A trusted political leader is critical for such a campaign.

So are there issues with the original plan? Of course. It was developed by a railroad engineer, not a transit planner. Now that the transit wonks are involved the project is forced with making practical decisions about rail vs. bus and what it might take to win an election in unproven territory (Jackson County has never fielded a countywide transit sales tax initiative).

The first open house was held in September, with a second one tentatively planned for early November.

Bus Rapid Transit (Rapid Ride)

A consultant from Portland recently (and accurately) pointed out that our MAX lines are not Bus Rapid Transit. That’s okay, because we still like the token BRT elements (real-time arrival, limited stops) that MAX added to two high-frequency transit corridors (Main Street in 2005, and Troost Avenue this January). What we do NOT like is the silly routing, lack of off-board ticketing, and limited service in South KC. Plans are afoot to address the Main Street MAX routing now that the streetcar will definitely run on Main instead of Grand.

State Avenue Connex

Meanwhile, three other future MAX corridors are getting love care of the Recovery Act. A TIGER grant is funding improvements to the Metcalf/Shawnee Mission Parkway, State Avenue, and North Oak corridors (transit centers, sidewalks, and signal priority). Since existing service isn’t even close to BRT, the State corridor will be branded “Connex”.

Regular Bus Service

KCATA is in the midst of a massive overhaul of their system, the first phase of which is planned for 2012. Public comments are still being accepted. The JO is moving forward with bus-on-shoulder operations for their commuter routes to downtown KCMO.

Intercity Passenger Rail

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon surprised everyone in March with a $1 billion application for high speed rail across the state, terminating in KC. Having subsidized Amtrak service since 1979, the state has had skin in the game for longer than most, but the proposal wasn’t the slam dunk the Obama administration was looking for. Instead, we netted $31 million to improve reliability (already at 90%) for two existing round-trips. The improvements could make way for a third round-trip and a much-needed reduction in the 5:40 travel time to St. Louis.

In addition to track improvements, Missouri also was part of a grant for new trains to be pooled with other Midwestern states (Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan). The current equipment is operable, obviously, but older than many of its passengers.

A state rail plan is being developed this year using input gathered from public meetings.

Meanwhile, an effort to bridge a service gap between Kansas City and Oklahoma is stalled due to a hostile governor, but a service plan that was funded before Brownback took office is due this month.

Intercity Bus Service

Not much news in this segment, but express carrier MegaBus continues to impress with a new-ish stop in Columbia and low advance fares. KC’s top carrier, Jefferson Lines, now offers express service from KC to Des Moines with WiFi and nicer coaches. Old man Greyhound has new vehicles, but has yet to extend its Bolt Bus service beyond the East Coast.

A proposal to move all bus services to Union Station is promising, but held up at City Hall.

Bike Sharing

Bike sharing systems are spreading like mad across the US and KC is not immune. A local off-shoot of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Foundation (BikeWalkKC) is spear-heading a privately funded bike sharing system. A fully-functional demo in June proved that there is interest, even without major bike lanes or trails in the urban core.

Separately, bike trails and bike sharing rated very highly on the City’s crowd-sourcing budgeting site, KCMOmentum. This could lead to serious levels of funding, now that morale has been boosted by a Bronze Level rating as a Bicycle Friendly City.

Car Sharing

UMKC caught everyone off guard this year when it snuck an ordinance through City Council that made car-sharing cheaper by allowing the “arena tax” to be calculated on an hourly basis. As soon as it passed, our urban university made their plans public. Expect a Zipcar or WeCar franchise at two campuses by years end, with a downtown location sure to follow.

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Crossing the river is about to get easier

MoDOT broke ground today on Kansas City’s first, safe Missouri River crossing for pedestrians and bicycles… ever.

See the video above for the Heart of America Bridge makeover.

Believe it or not, crossing the river on foot or bike today is a very dicey affair — unlike almost all other river cities. There is literally no room on the Broadway Bridge, Heart of America traffic zooms along at 50+ mph, and MoDOT slammed the door on ped/bike access on the brand-new Paseo Bridge.

The Heart of America crossing will be barrier-separated, although users will need to start their trip on 3rd Street in the River Market or on Burlington Street in North Kansas City. Auto users are treated to a plethora of access options.

This new crossing is even more necessary when you consider the limited transit options connecting the two halves of Kansas City — bus service is limited after 6 p.m., and non-existent on Sundays.

The HOA bridge had been tagged as the river crossing in most of the light rail plans that crossed into the northland. However, it was deemed in recent plans to be incapable of handling full light rail vehicles and would need to be rebuilt.

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A message for transportation advocates

We recorded the above message for advocates with Dan Johnson-Weinberger, a lobbyist for the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, at their annual meeting over the weekend. Dan’s message is basically to keep it local by talking to your local elected officials first (mayor, council, aldermen), then having them talk to their state and federal counterparts.

While Sens. Bond or Brownback may not take a personal call from you, they will take one from your mayor.

Feel free to pass the message on to others.

A perfect example of this groundswell is the recent success in Kansas. Bipartisan majorities supported a bill that enables (but does not fund) state-sponsored passenger rail service in the state… something that, until recently, was widely touted as forbidden by the state’s constitution. Grassroots advocates sought resolutions of support from every city council along the proposed route, encouraging their legislators to act.

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Midwest HSR meeting this weekend

We’ll be attending the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s Annual Meeting this weekend in Chicago and will do our best to offer live coverage via Twitter.

This event tends to be heavily focused on Illinois, but there will be an overview of passenger rail projects funded by the Recovery Act (which includes Missouri). There will also be an overview of a French proposal for 220 mph service in the Midwest, which includes a link to Kansas City.

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KDOT, Amtrak release passenger rail study

The Kansas Department of Transportation and Amtrak released a feasibility study today outlining costs and ridership potential for a new state-sponsored passenger rail route between Kansas City and Fort Worth.

Four alternatives were studied, daytime and nighttime, each with varying price tags and connections to existing Amtrak services. The clear winner is Alternative 3 — a daytime train that provides a direct, 12-hour trip between Fort Worth and Kansas City — but the Kansas Legislature must decide which option to advance for state and federal funding. Alternative 3 has the highest ridership (174,000) and highest capital cost ($479 million).

Any option terminating in KC would use Amtrak’s existing facility at Union Station. Station stops include Lawrence, Topeka, Emporia, Wichita, and Oklahoma City.

The chosen option will need to win political and financial support from Oklahoma and Texas, which will also benefit from the additional service.

Annual operating costs for all four options range from $3.2 to $8 million. Missouri currently pays Amtrak $8 million to operate two round-trips between KC and St. Louis. Oklahoma and Texas share the $2 million cost of one daily round-trip between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth.

This week also marked the first official legislative approval for the effort: SB 409, authorizing KDOT to enter into passenger rail agreements, was approved by both chambers and is on it’s way to Gov. Mark Parkinson for signature.

The Lawrence Journal-World has the best recap of today’s press conference. History of this effort can be found at northflyer.org/.

UPDATE: We also have comments about the study from Northern Flyer Alliance President Deborah Fischer-Stout about the study.

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Live-tweeting the TIGER press conference

We’ll be covering the follow-up TIGER press conference in Mission tomorrow at 10 a.m. Follow us at http://twitter.com/kclightrail. Local officials from Johnson and Wyandotte counties — recipients of most of the transit portion of the TIGER grant — will hopefully provide more detail on when improvements will begin and whether there will be operational support for expanded bus service along the Metcalf and State corridors.

There’s also a major press conference in Topeka on Thursday to unveil the Amtrak feasibility study for passenger rail service in Kansas. We’ll be at KDOT headquarters covering that event as well.

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TIGER grant decisions due Feb. 17

According to media reports nationwide, the US Department of Transportation will announce TIGER grant awards by Feb. 17.

Kansas City submitted a regional application that includes $6 million in design and engineering work for a downtown streetcar that would run between River Market and Crown Center. No local match is required for the $1.5 billion TIGER program.

Total capital cost of the 2-mile streetcar is $68.3 million, while operational costs of $2.1 million would need to come from a new revenue source (likely a TDD for the service area).

Other elements of the Kansas City application are funding for the Green Impact Zone, implementation of the Bike KC plan, improved bus facilities along SmartMoves corridors, West Bottoms freight rail capacity improvements, and a new highway interchange at I-35 and Front Street.

TIGER is a competitive grant program introduced in the Recovery Act. Previously, most transportation funding was disbursed using formulas that were not merit-based.

Keep an eye on our Twitter feed for the initial announcement.

An second, $280 million grant program specifically for Urban Circulators (buses or streetcars that serve users in a confined area, versus longer-distance commuters) was announced last month, but KCATA does not have the 20% local match required to apply in this tough budget year. The deadline for that $25 million grant is Feb. 8, with awards announced in “early 2010″. Many of Kansas City’s peers will be applying, such as Charlotte, Tuscon, Omaha, San Antonio, and Fort Worth.

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Kansas City gets passenger rail boost

No, it ain’t light rail, but it’s definitely worth a mention here.

While not the location chosen for the announcement, Kansas City is getting an intercity passenger rail boost on two fronts today.

First, Amtrak’s existing Kansas City-to-St. Louis Missouri River Runner route will get $31 million in upgrades to improve capacity and on-time performance. Even though on-time performance has been running in the 90% range for months, most of the improvement has come from reduced freight traffic and the threat of host railroad penalties made possible by Congressional action.

Two trains run daily — morning and late afternoon — between KC and St. Louis in each direction; annual ridership runs in the 150,000 to 200,000 range. Missouri pays an annual subsidy for operations, as is the case with most of Amtrak’s corridor operations outside of the northeast. There’s no indication the improvements will affect the scheduled 5:40 running time, but the timetable is likely to be revisited in coming years since it contains a lot of padding.

Increasing speeds is definitely a priority, but a third (mid-day) departure would increase the usefulness of the service dramatically. Also, now is a great time for Missouri and Illinois to jointly operate direct service between KC and Chicago (a change of trains is now required, though the once-daily Southwest Chief will probably always be a faster trip). A direct train would make the service more palatable to riders going between Hermann, MO and Alton, IL, for example.

Second, a grassroots effort to extend Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer through Wichita to Kansas City was awarded funding for developing a service plan for the route. This route is not a federally-designated high-speed rail corridor, but is one of most glaring gaps in Amtrak’s route map. Enabling legislation for the service was introduced in the current Kansas legislative session.

KC-bound passengers on both routes would end up at Union Station, terminus for both the proposed regional rail and downtown streetcar systems.

Other big regional winners were the St. Louis-to-Chicago corridor (which will eventually run at 110 mph), Madison-to-Milwaukee (new service), Detroit-to-Chicago, and a service plan for new services in Iowa.

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Round-up: This week in peripheral transit issues

We’re not touching the Clay Chastain story this time until the city’s attorneys vet his plan before he starts collecting signatures.

Federal Surface Transportation Bill – Rep. Oberstar continues to pledge on-time delivery and passage of the “son of SAFETEA-LU“. Even though it will cover all surface modes — light rail, passenger rail, etc… not just highways — transportation planners continue to ask for lop-sided amounts for highway spending, even though VMT continues to decline.

High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail – Expect interim improvements over many years to get consistent speeds (79 mph) and reliability before we ever get bullet trains (150+ mph) to St. Louis. Regardless, it’s door-to-door trip time, reliability, and frequency that count (not train speed). UPDATE: A new siding in California, MO, broke ground today.

KCATA Rescue – Not gonna happen, unless the Obama administration slaps down the state legislature’s effort to use stimulus funds as tax refunds (we call it the South Carolina Reach-Around). Fare hike took effect March 1, service cuts begin June 28 (just in time for Ozone Days). Thanks again, Wayne!

Imagine KC – If you missed the live broadcast last week of the KCPT special that included lots of transit talk (and neat videos), you can catch up on it here.

Pedestian/Bicycle Counts – Would you believe it if we told you that Kansas City has never counted pedestrians or bicyclists anywhere for any reason? Well, it’s unfortunately very true. A trial count was held last week with formal participation in a nationwide count coming this fall.

Missouri River Crossing – It’s also quite unfortunate that there is no safe river crossing for pedestrians or bicyclists, especially with anemic off-peak bus service as the only non-car option. Thankfully, stimulus funding to the rescue! MoDOT is accelerating plans to rehab the Heart of America bridge with a bike path.

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