TransitKC

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Taking the temperature along the route

The Star provides an excellent snapshot today of how residents and businesses along the 14-mile starter route are feeling.

While the comments run the gamut from excited to suspicious, we encourage all Kansas Citians to trust the federally-mandated process that requires facts to back up any route in exchange for federal funding. Travel times must be competitive (hence the need for eliminating bottlenecks in the street) and ridership estimates must be based on potential (versus just existing riders).

What we find most intriguing is the faulty assumption that light rail will have a more detrimental or divisive effect than the high-volume arteries that already exist along the route. Don’t think that’s a fair comparison? Ask any neighborhood association why they’ve lobbied for one-way streets and traffic circles and you’ll have the answer.

(Hint: Too many cars are bad for neighborhoods, too.)

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Are you ready for a Cordish boycott?

The big, bad gorilla in the room has spoken: Cordish opposes the city’s light rail route down Grand.

In today’s Star, Cordish spokesman Jon Stephens tries on the low-hangers but it’s such a transparent argument: “The business owners that have invested tens of millions of dollars into the community and made a commitment to our newly revitalized downtown should have their voices heard and be given a seat at the table with respect to light rail.”

Um, that would be a special table since we’ve been having public input meetings for months. Sorry, Jon (and your Baltimore flunkies), but you should have showed up then to place your stickers on the map. Pretty sure you got the invite.

It seemed inevitable that someone would emerge as the opposition. Who knew it would be such an easy target for counter-insurgence? Cordish has a lot riding on the district — almost as much as city taxpayers — and further threatening good will could lead to economic backlash.

Anyone up for a little P+L boycott?

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NKC selects Burlington route

The North Kansas City City Council voted unanimously last week on Burlington as the preferred route for the 2-mile light rail segment through their city. Using Burlington — also known as Highway MO-9 — will provide a faster trip to the northern terminus and will be less expensive to build than using neighboring Swift Street.

After court approval of a transportation district, NKC is expected to place a transit sales tax on their November ballot. The city is land-locked entirely by Kansas City and the Missouri River, so cooperation between the two cities is crucial to moving the starter line forward. NKC will benefit greatly from it’s position on the route as its permanent population of just under 5,000 swells to about 16,000 with daytime workers.

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Dedicated ROW: The Rock Island Corridor

Lee’s Summit has joined a coalition of governments interested in buying the 8.5-mile Rock Island corridor — owned by Union Pacific since Rock Island was dismantled by court order in 1980 — for the purposes of redeveloping it for transit use. About $2 million is needed to purchase the right of way, which might come in the form of an earmark from Missouri Sen. Kit Bond as early as next session.

The route connects Lee’s Summit to Kansas City via Raytown and was referenced in Mayor Funkhouser’s draft regional plan as a potential commuter rail line. It’s unclear whether UP wants to run freight on the now inactive line when it’s rehabbed, an approach that would complicate light rail’s potential in the corridor. Commuter rail may make more sense for transit planners since the line continues south to terminate in Pleasant Hill — a distance most would agree it too far to be practical for light rail.

So why the fuss over an abandoned rail line? Well, Kansas City doesn’t have many (all are active and “congested”). Most of geography is now developed, leaving little option for light rail outside of city streets (acquiring private property is expensive, time consuming, and generates a lot of opposition). Many cities with abandoned rail lines turn them over to use as bike trails, which never get converted back to mass transit.

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Starter line ordinance advances to full Council

Ordinance 080693 for the KCMO light rail starter line advanced from today’s Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and is on its way to the full council. Approval is expected since all of the councilmembers have signed on as co-sponsors and route compromises enabled total concensus. This moves Kansas City another step closer to the 3/8-cent sales tax question appearing on the November ballot. Now all that’s left is council approval — likely next week — before the Aug. 26 ballot deadline.

Some changes were made to the ballot language, basically codifying the route in the actual ballot language (versus leaving it in the separate non-binding resolution):

For the purpose of funding a light rail passenger system running from the area around the intersection of Bruce R. Watkins Roadway and 63rd Street on the south to the area around the intersection of Northeast Vivion Road and North Oak Trafficway on the north, which can ultimately connect to a regional public transportation system, shall the City of Kansas City impose a sales tax of 1/4 % under the authority of Section 94.577, RSMo, and a sales tax of 1/8 % under the authority of Section 94.600, RSMo, both for a period not to exceed 25 years, beginning April 1, 2009, and which may include the retirement of debt under authorized bonded indebtedness?

UPDATE: Here’s The Star’s coverage of today’s meeting.

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Johnson: Extend starter line to 63rd

Councilman Russ Johnson will introduce a compromise tomorrow for the proposed starter line that will extend the current terminus from Brush Creek to 63rd Street along Bruce R. Watkins Drive. The effort is intended to secure support from the other council districts that aren’t as well served by the route as the 2nd and 4th districts. While at first it may appear to be a “me too” grab, there are true benefits to terminating at 63rd (although they’re not the ones you’re hearing about):

- Directly serves Research Medical Center
- A potential shot in the arm for the struggling Citadel Plaza project and the Kansas City Zoo
- Utilization of reserved light rail ROW along Watkins Drive

What you are hearing is grandstanding from the 3rd, 5th, and 6th districts about transit-dependent populations and decades of economic neglect. While those are both undeniably true, they won’t affect the federal decision-making process as much as job and population density.

So how will we pay for the extra two miles? The Star article references some potential cuts, but we’re hoping a successful spring vote for regional funding makes that unnecessary.

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Today's public comments

Big take-aways from today’s public comments segment of the Transportation and Infrastructure committee meeting (watch it online):

- The Northland Chamber will debate support for the starter line in September, but cautioned support would diminish unless the northern terminus remains Vivion Road (updated 7/25/08).
- The Clay County EDC) will support the starter line if the northern terminus remains Vivion Road.
- Councilman John Sharp again urged extension of the starter line south to 63rd along Bruce Watkins (which is dedicated ROW).
- The Sierra Club supports the starter line.
- Several men in suits who think they know better complaining about Union Station.
- A letter from Union Station president Andi Udris stating his support for light rail and the inclusion of Union Station as a transit hub (we’ll admit we didn’t see that one coming).
- Dennis O’Neill hates light rail and conveniently forgot to mention the transit-dependent 6th District will be served by Troost BRT next year… oh, and some huge TIF project as big as the Power & Light District.
- The Regional Transit Alliance supports the starter line.
- Councilman Ed Ford poignantly noted how far we’ve come when you see Crown Center and Union Station duking it out to see who will become a light rail stop.

Thankfully, committee chair Russ Johnson directly addressed two main concerns during the meeting: Union Station and the “tourist” label being lobbed by Councilmen Sharp and Terry Riley.

- Union Station will be served, exactly how is “wide open” until more design work is complete and won’t be formalized before the November election.
- While the starter line route hits tourist destinations, the study area — by no coincidence — contains more job and population density than any other place in the metro and both are expected to grow in the near future.

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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.

EXISTING MODES:

AirKCI 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 busGreyhound 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 railAmtrak 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?

FUTURE MODES:

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).

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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?).

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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).

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