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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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Your mayoral options: Burke, Funk, or Sly

You say you want improved transit in Kansas City? Well, your slate of mayoral candidates has finally let it slip where they stand. The bad news is that you don’t have very many options.

Steve Kraske reports on Prime Buzz that only Mike Burke, incumbent Mark Funkhouser, and Sly James have made any positive comments about transit — light rail, specifically — in recent interviews and candidate forums.

Unfortunately, one of the three (Funk) has a miserable record and nothing to show for having had transit on his list of priorities for his entire first term… including the failed 2008 vote for the starter line to replace Clay Chastain’s winning 2006 petition initiative (which was the catalyst for this blog). Coincidentally, Chastain announced this week that he’s “moving back to KC” to run a write-in campaign for mayor. We can safely predict this will go nowhere.

The remaining two pro-transit candidates are capable of occupying the city’s top elected position, but need to provide more detail about their plans for transit, including whether they support Mike Sanders’ regional rapid rail concept.

Other candidates offer the same tired excuses — variations on the “we can’t afford it” theme — but:

  • Reality #1 is that the city is still spending money on the exact same things it spent money on before the recession, just less on each item (including transit).
  • Reality #2 is that the big price tags for major transit improvements always come with matching federal dollars — otherwise, they just don’t happen. The feds tell you early on whether you’ll have a chance at getting any money, which was a major sticking point for some voters with the 2008 plan (the vote was held far too early in the federal planning process).
  • Reality #3 is that capital and operating expenses must come from a new, dedicated tax. That means it will not affect the city’s general fund or debt capacity (KCATA can issue its own debt, especially if it has the revenue from a new tax).

The mayoral and council primary is Feb. 22 and the election is March 22.

On a side note, you may have noticed that the site has been quiet lately and even has a new name: transitkc.com. We’re broadening the scope of the blog to include all modes of transportation in the region. The change will be accompanied by a complete redesign, the addition of a mobile presence, and more social media integration. Stay tuned for more details!

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Clay Chastain at Union Station

Clay Chastain
Photographer Eric Bowers captured Clay Chastain during his petition drive at Union Station on Saturday, which was also National Train Day. Chastain gathered about 1,000 signatures, but announced today he’d be scaling back the proposal.

Earlier in the week, Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders made a competing pitch to the Kansas City City Council; the Council tentatively agreed to support the Sanders plan [PDF] and is considering a change in the petition process that would require a financial statement from the city auditor for each petition initiative submitted to voters.

Photo used with permission.

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Chastain to air radio spot, hold petition rally

We received this in email this morning:

PRESS RELEASE

April 22, 2010

Clay Chastain

Once again, we are exercising our right under the Constitution to petition our government for grievances.

Our grievance is that Kansas City’s government has failed to provide the people a modern, efficient, and attractive transit system to move about the city that saves people money, protects the environment, and helps stimulate the local economy.

Included in this press release is the text and the audio of a radio spot advertising this effort and informing the voters of Kansas City where they can come to sign the light rail and charter change initiative.

This new radio spot will air today at 5:52p.m on KMBZ radio and continue to run as funds allow up to the petition signing rally at Union Station on May 8 from 9:00am to 3:00pm.

In the past, people have complained that they did not know where to find us to sign light rail petitions. So, we are giving the public a one-day opportunity to come to us.

Thank you for any assistance you can provide in informing the public of this most important civic matter.

The radio spot is here [MP3].

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Chastain returning with one-two punch

Chastain Map

Punch #1 – Another light/commuter rail plan. PrimeBuzz has the details.
Punch #2 – Strip the City Council’s ability to invalidate petition initiatives.

We’ve maintained that Chastain’s motivation actually seems quite pure and is valuable in keeping the city’s feet to the fire on transit improvements. Our system is undeniably underfunded and has yet to make the leap from poor-people mover to economic development engine.

BRT, commuter rail, and streetcars are all great proposals, but none of them will ever come to fruition if our operational funding isn’t significantly increased (and preferably on a truly regional basis).

Regarding Punch #2, the Council will never live down repealing the only successful vote on light rail, flawed as it was. Since that first repeal of a petition initiative didn’t go so well, expect voters to do some punishing.

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New Chastain petition drive starts Monday

After a failed attempt at working directly with the Parks Board, Clay Chastain is starting another light rail petition initiative. He will be gathering signatures from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday at Union Station. Laugh if you must, but Chastain is the only person who’s actually doing something about light rail right now. What better way to keep the city’s feet to the fire than sign the petition again?

No gondolas this time — which we feel was a pretty good idea… ever walked from Union Station to Liberty Memorial? Yeah, didn’t think so — but the electric buses are back, fueled this time by wind turbines on the riverfront. And if you think that’s koo-koo, check out Oklahoma City’s plan again.

And even though the Missouri Court of Appeals struck down Chastain’s legal challenge from the last initiative, he’s still threatening to take that one to the Missouri Supreme Court.

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Chastain appeal rejected

The Missouri Court of Appeals put the final nail in the coffin of Clay Chastain’s only successful light rail petition initiative today by denying his appeal. Chastain argued that the city council’s repeal of the petition initiative was unconstitutional, but the robes disagreed.

The city’s charter was amended years ago to allow the council to undo any petition initiative. Opinions on the wisdom of applying that option in this situation vary. It was, at a minimum, short-sighted to reject Chastain’s plan entirely (which was approved with 53% in a low-turnout election) than to put all of our eggs in a similarly-problematic basket in a replacement ballot question (which was swept under the rug with only 44% approval in a tide of “change”).

Of course, it all seems obvious in retrospect. The council was simply not given adequate information on the options.

In the interim, KC transit riders endured a fare increase and an unsuccessful attempt to secure state funding to prevent service cuts. Brights spots actually exist, however: County leaders are poking around in the commuter rail attic, the city is getting somewhat serious about bike and pedestrian issues (vital to supporting transit), and SmartMoves is progressing with our Bush-era BRT-lite template (the Troost Avenue corridor is next in 2010).

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Profiles in Courage or Absurdity?

Two very different takes on the continued legal challenges from Clay Chastain: Star columnist Mike Hendricks and Scott Wilson on Pitch Weekly’s Plog.

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Appellate court hears Chastain challenge

Read about the continued courtroom drama here, but heed this: “Chastain conceded to the three-judge panel that if the repeal was struck down, there may have to be yet another light-rail vote.”

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Chastain still fighting; is he all we've got?

The Star printed a letter to the editor today from light rail advocate Clay Chastain indicating that he and wife Valerie are will file another appeal this month over the City Council’s repeal of his successful ballot question in November 2006. Yes, it’s been that long.

While we’re still confident the Council was on sound legal footing — the ability to repeal a ballot initiative is a voter-approved part of the city’s charter — we’re now left with the frightening prospect that Chastain is literally the last figure out there fighting for some semblance of light rail in Kansas City.

- Funkhouser or Ford? Neutered, distracted, or both.
- Johnson? Deferring to Sanders.
- Sanders? Who the hell knows (and does he care?).

What’s sad is that there is no one from the business community stepping up to make the next push (Hello, Downtown Council!!!), as we’ve seen in other successful cities (Denver, Portland, Charlotte) and those with fires still burning (Detroit). Instead, we’re stuck with leaders pursuing one zero-sum game after another (convention hotel, pro-sports teams).

We’d really like to see business interests pick up on the Detroit model for a public-private partnership between the river and the Plaza. There is absolutely no reason why every single business/property owner or corporate interest along Main should be supporting this type of endeavor.

In the interim, city leaders should be listening very closely to the feedback from the Alternatives Analysis, which basically is a huge wake-up call for how land use is managed across the metro: STOP SPRAWLING AND SUBSIDIZING PARKING OR YOU WILL NEVER GET LIGHT RAIL OUTSIDE OF THE RCP CORRIDOR. If light rail and improved transit is as important as you said it was last fall, then you need to fix the root cause ASAP.

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