TransitKC

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A transit advocate’s manifesto

Hi, my name is David Johnson. I’m the author of this blog. This is my story.

First, I want to tell you that Kansas City will build a downtown streetcar, and it will kickstart a much-needed transit renaissance in the entire region. We’re closer than ever and the momentum is strong enough that I can confidently guarantee both. I wouldn’t have said that a year ago.

At a gathering of downtown residents last week, I encouraged people to speak at the April 17 streetcar public hearing and tell their story. It’s hard to argue with someone’s personal story and most people aren’t adept at defending public transportation spending, so making it personal is a good place to start. It later occurred to me that I should be telling my own story. Until now, I’ve hidden behind the keyboard.

I’m a small-town Kansas guy with a journalism degree. No experience relying on public transit until I moved downtown in 2004. Once I arrived here, it clicked. It really was like a light bulb. Transit exists here and it is useful? Indeed. And come to find out it’s more useful the more people and jobs there are nearby.

Fast forward to 2006. Clay Chastain succeeded in putting another transit petition initiative on the ballot. I voted for it, no big deal. But the day after it became a very big deal. 53% of Kansas City residents voted in desperation for something… anything to advance the state of transit. How could we seize this opportunity? Within a month, I began writing furiously. Since then, another plan was introduced and failed. Too big, not fully baked, tepid political support.

There had to be a better way. Sold the car and bought a bus pass. Traveled to nearly every mid-sized city in the US looking for clues why Kansas City was chronically underinvesting in transit. Read every news article Google could deliver. Attended a transit advocacy conference. Turns out, you need a political leader. No amount of advocacy can win these issues alone, I learned; but those leaders need you to have their backs.

Right now, we have that exact situation with downtown residents, Mayor Sly James, and Councilman Russ Johnson. The streetcar proposal is modest, yet still has the potential to spur that transit renaissance. Every downtown interest is being asked to chip in, avoiding the pitfalls of a citywide vote.

All the pieces are in place. Thank the Mayor and Council. See you in court tomorrow!

P.S. Follow me @kclightrail for live tweets from the courtroom, starting at 1:30 p.m. CST Tuesday.

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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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The Mission Effect

Tidy first-tier suburb Mission made big news this week by passing a Transportation Utility Fee that focuses local taxation on infrastructure impact instead of assessed value.

By assessing fees based on the amount of car trips generated by each parcel — and, hence, the wear and tear on local roads — Mission has fired the first, tangible warning shot that Kansas City’s sprawling days may be numbered. While other cities fiddle with form-based codes, climate protection plans, and a lot of greenwashing, Mission’s new taxation method is binding and very real.

Comparing a McDonald’s (2,700 trips per day) and a single-family home of equal lot size (9.5 trips per day), the one with drive thru service pays much more. Even churches and schools will pay the fee.

The most interesting beneficiary of this new approach will be the Metcalf/Shawnee Mission Parkway bus rapid transit route, currently in planning stages. Mission’s contribution will now be a stable $1.2 million per year, far more reliable than sales or property taxes (both of which are down everywhere, with “down” being “the new normal”).

Connecting Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, existing (Main) and new (Troost) BRT routes, Metcalf BRT will be another thread that stitches together a functional, regional transit system one line at a time.

SmartMoves is actually playing out slowly and without much drama, instead of the typical big splash (or public vote) of a major transit proposal. Overland Park has yet to decide how they will fund their portion of the BRT service.

This move is not the penultimate step towards an urban growth boundary — which is what naysayers of smart growth fear most, yet unlikely to ever occur — but a very practical solution for an aging population and a shrinking tax base in a land-locked city.

Mission officials and residents (whose property tax bills will be lower, as a result) should be commended for their innovation and leadership.

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Bar "trolley" an affront to KC public transit

City Hall has kicked public transportation in the nuts, yet again.

Instead of providing additional funding to KCATA to extend service hours on the weekend — as is done in many other cities nationwide — the City Council has given $195,000 to a private operator to run a tourist “trolley” that duplicates existing transit services.

Good intentions aside, it shows how disconnected our elected officials are from the state of transit in KC — easy to do when driving from the attached garage at home to the underground garage at City Hall. This effort continues to propagate the myth that city buses are for poor people and that tourists and suburbanites should be coddled in faux streetcars — that go door-to-door. Several bus lines (MAX, #51-Broadway, and #57-South Oak) already connect Kansas City’s various entertainment districts, serve a larger area, and easily connect with other routes and park-and-rides… all with taxpayer dollars.

Officially, KCATA doesn’t see this is as competition. That is 100% wrong. City funds are scarce and KCATA’s funding continues to drop in every budget year, even though demand is growing. There’s a reason other cities aren’t doing this.

By the way, the “trolley” will cost you $15 to ride. Save yourself some change and buy a day pass on the MAX for $3. It stops at Waldo, Brookside, Plaza, Westport, Crossroads, Power & Light, and the River Market. Out past midnight? Take one of the many cabs right to your front door and avoid the drunken foolishness.

UPDATE: Here’s the Star’s version of the route map, compared to MAX.

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Why Portland actually means something for KC

After years of struggling with a stubborn Bush administration that refused to consider streetcars a valid form of urban transit, Portland and the Federal Transportation Administration announced a reversal last week.

The flood gates are now open, and that flood includes Kansas City’s streetcar proposal. Finally, Portland actually means something for Kansas City.

Cities across the country have been actively planning modern streetcar lines, mostly with the intent of reviving their urban cores. Moving more transit riders is still critical, but secondary to the economic development motive. While the previous administration dithered, cities moved ahead and proved them wrong; Portland, the darling of new urbanism, was at the forefront.

The money for Portland comes from the FTA’s Small Starts program, which also is funding our Troost MAX BRT line. Federal funding requests must be less than $75 million; Kansas City’s downtown streetcar proposal clocks in at $60 million.

While the federal transportation funding situation is in flux — and will continue to be throughout next year — the viability of a federal match, and potential for an early kick-start via the regional TIGER application, enhance our prospects significantly.

In short, it’s Kansas City’s best shot for initiating light rail service. We discourage readers from signing Clay Chastain’s latest petition, or voting for it should he successfully garner enough signatures. Forcing the city to deal with yet another legal quagmire would distract from the effort to move a real plan forward. If anyone thinks the city would every actually try to implement one of Chastain’s plan, we have a gondola to sell you.

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Light rail and climate change



Bloggers around the globe have united today for a massive online campaign to raise visibility on the issue of climate change. What does that have to do with our site? A lot, actually.

The major motivation for our use of — and advocacy for — improved public transportation is concern about the environment. Kansas City is one of the most energy-intense cities in the country, which not only takes a toll on the air we breathe, but also our bank accounts. Diesel buses and trains are great and serve their purpose as we transition, but electrified (or non-motorized) transit based on a future without dirty oil or coal is the ultimate goal.

You may not think about it when you’re driving effortlessly down our many wide-open freeways (you can’t see the damage with your own eyes, right?), but that oil you’re burning comes from somewhere and we all pay a hefty social cost to get it to you for such a low price. You are responsible for the footprint you’re leaving, like it or not, and it’s going to take more of your effort than just recycling or buying CFL bulbs.

Should you feel guilty? Well, yes. The feedback from Mother Nature is growing louder. Will you heed the call?

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Some perspective on consultant fees

The Star tackled light rail consultant fees this week, noting that $17 million has been spent over the last 15 or so years on various failed light rail plans. Most of that money came from the federal government — and usually from our earmark-loving congressional delegation — but the “faux outrage” in the article’s comments section mostly ignores reality and perspective.

For example, the new garage built for JE Dunn’s downtown headquarters rang in at about $18 million in TIF (and you’ll be charged to use it). That’s just one of a string of publicly-subsidized garages built for companies who could otherwise rely on transit to deliver workers to their door.

No major construction project gets built without consultant involvement, and thus, their fees. That includes roads, airports, or any other public structure. Most public works departments and transit agencies simply don’t have the manpower or fine-tuned expertise to handle them, whether it’s design and engineering or public engagement.

While it’s informative to know what’s been spent thus far, it’s more crucial to have repeated confirmation of where rail transit investment will work: the I-35, I-70, and central business corridors. Years of study make the next consultant’s job easier, and, theoretically, cheaper than starting from scratch.

So yes, we are a “permanent klatch”. We sit around, sip lattes, and wish Kansas City’s transit future were brighter than it appears today (which is pretty grim).

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Avoiding the obvious: Union Station = transit

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Today’s coverage of Union Station‘s continued financial troubles avoids the most obvious solution: transit.

Ask any resident what they think the station’s primary function should be and you’ll get the same response: Trains. Obvious, right? While the facility is somewhat officially designated as a transit hub, the non-profit that runs it is still focused on the beleaguered Science City and traveling exhibits. Annual attendance at the science museum has stabilized at 140,000, far less than the Kansas City Zoo or the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Exhibits have had success, but don’t provide consistency.

Their solution: Boost the station’s bottom line with a tax increase while continuing to focus on being a tourism destination. It’s a recipe for continued failure.

Transportation built the station to suit that purpose and only transportation can save it.

This would still likely require a new revenue stream to heat and cool the monster-sized interior — the largest expense, at $2.5 million annually — but this obvious connection would be an easier sell to voters, perhaps as part of a regional transit plan already in the works.

The current focus on passenger rail expansion — including Kansas City’s designation as a high-speed terminus and the extension of an existing route from Oklahoma City through Kansas — hold great promise for increasing foot traffic.

Kansas City’s next attempt at urban rail — a streetcar circulator connecting the station to the downtown loop — will also help.

The main sticking point for creating commuter rail service in the metro has been the distance between Union Station (about a mile) and the region’s top job center (the loop). Improving passenger rail and adding a streetcar connection would enhance the prospect for the station as a commuter rail hub. Today’s BRT stop at the station barely registers.

Also, shifting intercity bus carriers (Greyhound, etc.) from their far-flung station at 11th and Troost is the next logical choice. Amtrak already has contracts with bus providers that extend the network; currently, they must make stops at both Union Station and the bus depot. We don’t have to look far to peer cities like Fort Worth, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, who have paved the way for this shift to intermodalism. All modes benefit as a result of the synergy.

Add all those transit options together on Union Station’s massive footprint and you get a base to build retail demand just like large stations in Chicago, Boston, and New York. Few cities can tout such a facility in such a beautiful setting.

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The case for a downtown streetcar

Streetcar

On July 16, KCATA proposed a different kind of light rail for Kansas City: a 2.5-mile modern streetcar line serving as a downtown circulator between River Market and Crown Center.

First, some basic facts about the proposal:

  • Prior light rail studies indicate the “RCP” (River Market > Crown Center > Plaza) corridor is the best opportunity to reintroduce fixed rail transit in KC.
  • Capital costs (approximately $150 million) could be funded 100% by a TIGER grant program that’s part of the ARRA.
  • Operating costs (approximately $2-2.5 million annually) could come from new revenue sources adjacent to the route that would not require a city-wide public vote, likely through approval of a Transportation Development District.
  • The Greater Downtown Area Plan, while still in progress, recommends reintroduction of a downtown urban circulator.
  • The line would operate in mixed traffic, remove no on-street parking, and require no property acquisition for right of way.
  • The Downtown Council has indicated they may support the proposal.
  • Modern streetcar vehicles are now made in the US.
  • The proposal is not a complete rehash of the 14-mile plan voters rejected in November 2008, which was designed to bring commuters to downtown from the north, south, and east (although consultants noted earlier this year that only the RCP portion would have had a good shot at federal funding through existing programs).

Now, the tough part:

  • TIGER grants are competitive and are capped at $300 million per request and for each state; St. Louis and others will compete for all or part of that amount.
  • Every city, transit agency, railroad, MPO, and state DOT in the US can apply with separate proposals for the $1.5 billion that’s available nationwide.
  • Other Kansas City proposals from MARC, the Port Authority, Public Works (one for bike/ped/trails, another for roads), and the Kansas City Terminal Railway have been presented.
  • Funding will be granted at the complete discretion of the US DOT.

The dilemma for city leaders now is how best to package this or a combination of proposals to compete by the Sept. 15 deadline (insanely short by typical federal standards). US DOT has provided criteria and certainly indicated highways won’t be the top priority (sorry, MoDOT).

KCATA did not indicate exactly how, or if, the current MAX line would be affected. It’s important to note, however, that the MAX takes an overly-complicated route through downtown and could certainly benefit from a good straightening out.

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KCATA at First Friday

We were pleased to see the KCATA at First Friday last night, luring potential new riders who might be too hesitant to jump aboard an “live” bus for the first time.

Just one parked bus allowed people to casually observe entering and exiting, the seating layout, and how to pay a fare. We’d love to see KCATA get more aggressive with marketing existing services at public gatherings. First Friday‘s are the perfect opportunity: frequently occurring and full of people actively seeking an urban experience.

If you missed them this week, check out the Rider Guide.

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