TransitKC

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Star shines the light on transit funding

The Star has a write-up today about the city’s budget problems and the impact that will have on transit funding this year. In short, cuts are coming. Interesting that ex-light-rail champion Ed Ford had this to say: “There’s no question we’re going to have to break promises we made with voters. It’s just a question of which ones and how many.”

We’ll remember that rhetoric during the next mayoral election.

Pro-transit forces in Congress were unable to shoehorn transit operating assistance into the final stimulus bill, so it’s a story being repeated across the nation. Of course, the severity can be reduced here if the council had enough political capital to stand up to the interests that demand continued city subsidies to regional amenities (American Jazz Museum, Kansas City Zoo, Liberty Memorial, Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center, and Truman Sports Complex).

At this rate, we’d be better off with a larger fare hike to retain existing service levels and the 17% farebox recovery target. $2 seems to be the new national trend and would raise about $5 million annually.

The city simply cannot continue to starve transit until it suffers from a complete lack of utility.

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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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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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Your government: "We don't actually care about transit, SRSLY."

It’s all here in black-and-white on the US Conference of Mayors website. A laundry list of infrastructure projects and not one of them has anything to do with public transportation. Lots of crap for the KCI and Water Services, however. Thanks, Kansas City!

And do you think this is unique to the municipal level? Nah. MoDOT’s big wish list has a request for 200 buses (likely to be shared between the 6 or 7 agencies state-wide), but the total ask is twice as big as what’s expected from the economic stimulus. We’re guessing the buses get cut first in favor of roads and bridge. Thanks, Missouri!

Our only hope is that the next transportation funding bill levels the playing field so that all modes are competitive and get the same federal match. Gas taxes are going to need to rise — as will transit fares — so get ready for that eventuality. This, of course, requires an improvement in the sloth-like pace of county leaders who thought things were moving to fast… and by too fast we mean two years.

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Is regional transit really on the horizon?

By Ron McLinden

Light rail in Kansas City? “Regional” transit? County and municipal elected officials in three Missouri counties have been talking for almost a year, but it’s getting so you have to be able to read their minds to even correctly interpret what they say in public.

Last Friday (November 14) the “Regional Transit Steering Committee” met at MARC to talk about how to go forward. Present were the following: Raytown Mayor David Bower; KC Mayor Mark Funkhouser; KC Councilman Russ Johnson; Riverside Mayor Kathy Rose; Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders; Presiding Clay County Commissioner Ed Quick; Platte County Commissioner Betty Knight; outgoing Clay County Commissioner Craig Porter; and maybe one or two other. Also present were MARC staff, some transit consultants, and several RTA board members, along with reporters from The Kansas City Star, the Sun, and the Wall Street Journal (The WSJ is reportedly doing a story on Kansas City — presumably with a focus on the Mayor, so nobody is looking forward to reading it.).

Sanders was the most outspoken, saying it was important that talk of regional transit be slowed down (so as not to heighten public expectations), and that the three county leaders would need a few months to work out “governance” issues related to regional transit.

Maybe so, maybe not. I’ve never been convinced that “governance” is a necessary issue. Just have the three counties each pass a tax to support transit, and then negotiate separate contracts with the KCATA to provide service. (Ten local municipalities already do it this way.)

Even though there was talk of rail on Friday, rail transit seems all but dead for now. Kansas City voters have just said NO to light rail. Commuter rail is either too costly or simply not feasible: existing rail lines are either too busy carrying the nation’s freight, or they’re in such bad shape that it would cost megabucks to get them in shape so commuter trains could run at a reasonable speed. Light rail in the RCP corridor makes sense, but it’s not likely that regional voters would OK a plan that has rail in the core and just buses everywhere else. Thus, we appear to be “on the road” to a bus-only system — if we get any expansion at all.

Meanwhile, I’ve heard reports that the county officials are actually leaning toward a county-by-county approach to providing better transit service. Realistically, that makes sense — at least in the near term. More and better transit — beginning tomorrow morning — is what we need, not interminable day-dreaming about commuter rail or squabbling about what street light rail should run on.

Eventually we need to get back to a rail-based system — one that supports and catalyzes a more compact and high-quality urban environment where people who want to escape the drive-everywhere paradigm — and be part of the solution to rising energy prices and climate change — can live their lives.

In retrospect, maybe the real accomplishment of the meeting was that the three county leaders — Sanders, Quick, and Knight — made it clear that they are taking the transit issue away from Mayor Funkhouser and Councilman Johnson.

Ron McLinden is transit reliant by choice and is a member of the Regional Transit Alliance. His views are his own.

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The Infrastructure Bailout: Could KC compete for funds?

Momentum continues to build for the next economic bailout package to include a major infusion for infrastructure funding. The chorus of economists pushing the idea point to jobs, jobs, jobs. Why? It takes a lot of local hands to build stuff. Turns out the $600 “refund” checks were a total waste and the hastily-approved toxic assets purchase has already been abandoned. One alternative is to take a page from China’s playbook. Yes, our rail systems in the US are considered third world.

The Chinese government says it will create six million new jobs by investing $87-billion in railway projects next year. It also plans to invest a similar amount in urban mass-transit projects, where Bombardier has traditionally been a top supplier of rail cars and other equipment. Bombardier has already sold about 1,300 metro cars in China and it is currently tracking about 200 possible transit contracts in 37 cities across China, Mr. Zhang said.

But after a failure at the ballot box, KC might have to play catch up — again — to capture part of a domestic infrastructure package for urban or commuter rail, or even for the oft-discussed combined sewer replacement project. Earlier this year, Mayor Funkhouser was one of several big city mayors to testify before the US Senate that additional infrastructure spending was needed.

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Hindsight: The Epic Fails of the Starter Line

We’re not going anywhere, in case you were wondering. There’s lots of potential in the aftermath of Tuesday’s vote. In order of importance, here are the major fuck-ups with the starter line campaign:

Epic Fail #1: RIDERSHIP

A complete and total unknown before the election. Original schedule was June.

Epic Fail #2: CITY COUNCIL

Bickering with each other and constantly pointing the finger at Mayor Funkhouser. Yeah, we all know they want to be the next mayor, but come on. Fall in line behind the regional plan next year and put your petty differences aside… all of you. Make sure the ATA has the money to finish the Alternatives Analysis, even if you have cut the stadiums subsidy to make it happen (they’re doing fine, financially… the city and transit are not).

Epic Fail #3: EXTENSIONS

The election results by ward suggest that none of the politically-motivated extensions (Water Works to I-29, Plaza to Prospect, Brush Creek to 63rd) garnered any additional real support at the ballot box.

Epic Fail #4: OAK

Who? What? When? Exactly. Right before the election the project team started dropping Oak Street as an option through downtown, unquestionably to keep Cordish out of the fray. This option was not vetted with the public and should not have been mentioned. Period.

Epic Fail #5: SEWERS

One phrase sums this up: RED HERRING. Submit the plan on time next year and get it out of the way before the next transit vote.

Epic Fail #6: BALLOT LANGUAGE

Don’t make people add fractions ever again. Assuming a voter wasn’t aware light rail was on the ballot, the question’s language was too wordy and confusing. It did, however, have the correct amount of route detail, regardless of what the opposition said. The failure to garner a majority vote had more to do with the economy and the regional discussion (and lack of a clawback if no federal funding came through). Kudos to The Star for doing the educational legwork the project team did not make time to do.

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Why does DST hate America?

Did that catch your attention? Good.

More old money joins the Committee for Sensitive Transfers — or whatever they’re calling themselves now — with a big contribution: Tom McDonnell of DST.

According to Prime Buzz, McDonnell and his company also helped bankroll the 2001 opposition group (it’s all the same people now… surprised?). While acting as a mostly positive force in urban core development, DST is the recipient of lots of public subsidies and incentives. This begs the question: Why would McDonnell oppose a project that improves the infrastructure along 14-mile swath of the city?

Your guess is as good as ours, especially when you read this Business Journal quote from 2004:

“For several years, I have envisioned a downtown Kansas City enriched by the cultural and residential presence that I have encountered in other cities in the United States, Canada and Europe.”

Yeah, that Europe. It’s no coincidence that Europe had roads first and rail later. Why should KC be any different?

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Committee for Sensible Transit = MAVERICKS!

Seriously, as if their argument wasn’t callous or transparent enough, the lone opposition to light rail in KC is being uncovered for what they really are. The Pitch makes it clear again that we’re not dealing with Mom and Pop on Main Street. Some key highlights:

- One business owner is bankrolling the entire campaign.
- Their new car wash, which will take up a half-block of what should be store fronts on one of our busiest commercial corridors, will be totally automated (Are Mom and Pop behind some curtain? Will it breed crime? How do more car washes address KC’s goal of becoming a green mecca?).
- Their “campaign’s” last ditch effort is to throw out the ballot question on a technicality.

Do they have what it takes to make a compelling case against light rail when the electorate has proven — both at the ballot box in 2006 and in polling earlier this year — that they’re tired of talk and want action. The answer is NO. Vote YES on Nov. 4.

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KC Star: Vote yes on light rail

The Kansas City Star endorsed the KCMO and NKC light rail questions on its editorial page today, a move that was expected given the broad consensus between elected officials and the business community.

Unlike the 2001 city-backed plan — or any one of the Chastain-backed petition initiatives — the current plan takes the best ideas and distills them down to an easy-to-understand starter route that connects to two major freeways on both ends, crosses the river, and serves KC’s top three job centers. In short, it makes sense to all but the most stalwart anti-transit curmudgeons.

Couple all of that with an expected makeover of federal transportation funding, the rapid rise in environmental awareness, and an increase in local transit demand and you’ve got a great setup for victory on November 4.

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