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Live-tweeting the Sanders presentation

We’ll be live-tweeting Mike Sanders’ Regional Rail presentation at the Central Exchange today. Follow along at http://twitter.com/kclightrail, starting at 11:45 a.m. CST.

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Sanders to discuss commuter rail at Central Exchange

This is the item to break our months-long silence: Jackson County CEO Mike Sanders will present his Regional Rail Plan to the Central Exchange on Jan. 26. Members attend for free, non-members pay $30. And yes, men are very much welcome to attend.

We haven’t heard a peep out of Sanders since he unveiled his plan to a surprised media way back in October. It was well over a month before any information even appeared on the Jackson County website (don’t let that date stamp fool you). The description for next week’s event still maintains that stimulus money is being sought to pay for construction, even though all stimulus deadlines related to transit have already passed and it’s not a given that a new jobs bill will include transit funding (assuming such a bill even passes, considering the results of this week’s special election in Massachusetts).

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Round-up: Commuter rail coverage

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Four lessons for Mike Sanders

As we’ve had time to digest Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders’ Regional Rapid Rail System proposal, we’ve found the following flaws that must be addressed before the plan will get any serious traction:

1. Lack of visible regional cooperation.

Showing your plan to 2,000 or so officials and having them nod their head when told it will be FREE (see #2) is not a plan for success. Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser, who inevitably botched his own regional plan, had other mayors standing with him every step of the way. Keep pushing as a one-man lightning rod and people will dismiss you as the next Clay Chastain.

Also, MARC, MoDOT, KDOT, and KCATA were nowhere to be found; all are planning elements that either duplicate (State Avenue BRT), compete with (I-70 truck lanes), or complement (downtown streetcar) the commuter rail lines.

LESSON: Prove you can share and play nice, or please go home.

2. Funding.

Sorry, but there isn’t a second stimulus (yet). All deadlines for passenger rail and transit stimulus funding have passed. The Feds don’t pay 100% capital and operating costs for anyone, and even if they did, Sanders hasn’t identified an operator who could receive the funding. The current DOT secretary also prefers communities and their states to be on the same page (see #1) and have skin in the game.

And the argument about Jackson County being cheated on stimulus? Stimulus money is indeed being spent in Jackson county, it’s just not being sent directly through Jackson County for Sanders to spend.

LESSON: Be smart with the money, like you said you would be. Ask for a new regional transit sales tax, then get out there and sell it.

3. An urban light rail spine.

A major drawback to any commuter rail plan has been the distance between Union Station and the downtown loop. It’s only one mile and served by frequent (yet scattered) bus service, but it’s clearly been one of the top mental blocks for transit planners. And here’s a Plan B, in case the streetcar doesn’t materialize: Consolidate all north/south bus routes into dedicated bus lanes on Main Street, effectively creating a dependable and high-frequency transit corridor.

LESSON: Get comfy with KC Councilman Russ Johnson and KCATA and make the downtown streetcar happen. What’s $60 million when you’re pushing a $1 billion plan?

4. Confusion about “private operators”.

Yes, private operators run lots of commuter lines all over the country. We even have a respected one headquartered in nearby St. Joseph. But don’t let anyone think that having a private operator means the lines will be profitable. The only question to answer is this: should the operations staff be county employees or contractors? Based on real world US examples, the “cheaper” option could come from either camp. There is a premium on safety (here’s why) and performance (here’s why), with cost a very distant third.

LESSON: No mode of transportation will ever make a profit (including roads, bridges, and airports).

In conclusion, we’re pretty confident the rushed press conference was a way to steal Clay Chastain’s thundermove on, nothing to see here… except THIS! The proposal has merit, but the price tag and voter fatigue require much more pragmatism. Ultimately, KC does have a great rail network that is underutilized, and a heap of free labor from TranSystems is nothing to downplay.

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Round-up: Commuter rail coverage

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Commuter rail before (or after) light rail?

Our last post about the regional commuter rail proposal unleashed questions about how the plan relates to the downtown streetcar proposal, and whether (or if) one is needed before the other. We decided to simply lay out some data so you can formulate your own conclusion.

The table below represents America’s “new rail cities” — metropolitan areas that built new rail infrastructure after the expansion of highway capacity and the rise of the private auto. This excludes cities that never dismantled their urban or commuter rail infrastructure in the 1950s (Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco). This provides a more balanced comparison to what KC is up against when implementing services from scratch.

Urban Rail refers to any rail line that is designed to serve an urban core with frequent, all-day service (subways, elevateds, streetcars, light rail). Commuter Rail refers to any rail line that connects outlying suburbs with the central business district with less frequent service focused primarily on rush hours.

The year corresponds to the initial year of operation. Fully-funded rail lines under construction are listed; BRT lines are not.

Metro Area Urban Rail Commuter Rail
Atlanta, Georgia 1979 N/A
Albuquerque, New Mexico N/A 2006
Buffalo, New York 1984 N/A
Charlotte, North Carolina 2007 N/A
Dallas, Texas 1996 1996
Denver, Colorado 1994 2015
Houston, Texas 2004 N/A
Los Angeles, California 1990 1992
Miami, Florida 1984 1987
Minneapolis, Minnesota 2004 2009
Nashville, Tennessee N/A 2006
New Haven, Connecticut N/A 1990
Norfolk, Virginia 2010 N/A
Portland, Oregon 1986 2009
Sacramento, California 1987 N/A
Salt Lake City, Utah 1999 2008
San Diego, California 1981 1995
Seattle, Washington 2009 2003
St. Louis, Missouri 1993 N/A
Washington, DC 1976 1984
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Sanders set to unveil commuter rail plan

Regional Commuter Rail Map
The Independence Examiner reports today that Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders is planning to unveil a regional commuter rail system that covers three counties on the Missouri side of the metro — Jackson, Clay, and Platte.

Sanders has been quietly showing these plans to local leaders – mayors, economic development officials, railroads – for some time. He said the 2,000 or so people who have peaked [sic] at the plans have embraced the idea quickly.

“The majority of cities in Eastern Jackson County are on board,” Blue Springs Mayor Carson Ross said.

On the Kansas side, Wyandotte County could conceivably participate as it does today by contract with KCATA. Johnson County has denounced any sort of true, bi-state transit entity — and don’t expect that to change anytime soon. There’s no indication who would operate the DMU-style service, but a well-known operator sits right in our backyard.

The plan is the result of planning work that began in the spring.

No capital funding has been identified for the estimated $1 billion cost, but county officials pledge trips to Washington for a majority of the cost (presumably in an earmark from retiring Senator You-Know-Who, since the next federal transportation bill is in limbo).

When it’s needed someday, just adding a fourth lane to Interstate 70 from downtown Kansas City to I- 435 near the stadiums will cost about $3 billion.

Operational funding would require a new sales tax of as little as 1/8-cent for each of the three counties, which share a population of just under one million. Presumably, some routes would negate the need for KCATA express bus routes paid for today out of affected cities’ general funds (Independence, Raytown, Blue Springs, Lee’s Summit, and Liberty).

Some cities would be served that have no transit service at all, such as Grandview, Riverside, Kearney, and Oak Grove.

The proposed system appears to follow the Commuter Corridors that are part of MARC’s SmartMoves regional transit plan. A few complementary projects (here, here, here, and here) have also been submitted to MARC’s long-range transportation plan.

The terminus at Union Station would be served by the downtown streetcar proposed by KCATA.

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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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Round-up: Buy American edition

To celebrate our country’s birth, we present a handful of patriotic transit developments:

Enjoy the holiday and stay safe!

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Commuter rail planning gets serious

After a lot of budget distractions and hand-wringing about oversight, county leaders are seemingly serious about at least the option of commuter rail in the metro.

Commuter rail has already been studied along all of these routes (probably more than once), but we have new players and new players need new data to take to voters. The 2002 MARC study [PDF] looked seriously at three trains each way daily on two existing rail corridors on the Missouri side: Kansas City Southern‘s KC-Odessa line and Union Pacific‘s KC-Pleasant Hill line (the latter already carries Amtrak’s Missouri River Runner trains). That study also recommended that Union Station become the “center city terminal”. Kansas City Southern has been the most vocal about the commuter rail concept on their tracks. Union Pacific, on the other hand, usually plays hardball and is well-known as one of the least friendly railroads to passenger rail.

The BNSF line between KC and Topeka was also considered in the 2002 study, but obviously will not be part of the Missouri-only regional discussion. That route, which currently carries Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, is being studied by KDOT for expanded inter-city service to Wichita and beyond.

So how can commuter rail work in KC since the jobs are dispersed everywhere? Recent studies indicate that downtown loop’s share of metro jobs is around 10% and it’s about a mile from Union Station. A light rail starter line between Plaza (the other hot job spot) and the River Market (perhaps even North Kansas City) would distribute a lot more people more efficiently if they arrive at Union Station and need to make one last connection.

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