The city may have derailed its own light rail plan.

Dead In Its Tracks 

The city may have derailed its own light rail plan.

Chubby's on Broadway may seem an unlikely place to hatch a plan for civic warfare, but on the steamy Sunday evening of July 8, thirty or so malcontents scurried into the brightly lit diner to talk in conspiratorial tones about light rail. For three hours, the group surveyed maps of the plan, scanned the city's 77-page proposal, scribbled notes and discussed strategy like guerilla soldiers the night before an ambush.

Although a few of them were the usual suspects -- business owners along the proposed route who would fight the plan even if it cured sadness -- most were citizens from throughout the city who had united recently for different reasons but under one cause: to defeat the city's proposal. Before the meeting ended, the group decided to call itself Citizens Against Rail Plan -- emphasizing that it's the plan they're against because, most insist, they support the concept of light rail "if it's done the right way."

"We must fight this thing as if it's a death struggle," says one CARPie. The group's ferocity aside, it alone may not spell disaster for light rail -- at $800 million, the proposal is so expensive that opposition was inevitable. But the plan's curse could be in the cross-section CARP represents. For every citizen angry enough to convene at Chubby's on a Sunday night, hundreds of others sit in homes across the city and simply don't see the light-rail vision. City planners may have crafted Kansas City's best light rail plan yet, but their effort to rally the community has sputtered.

Now, when there could be a vocal citizens' movement to herald environmentally friendly, traffic-reducing light rail and the progress it will spur, there exists a contingent of frustrated, insulted and alienated voters. At best, they want answers. At worst, they want the plan dead.

Kansas City's venture into the futuristic enterprise of light rail began more than a quarter century ago, when the Mid-America Regional Council and forward-thinking planners first came up with a study for a 24-mile stretch of rail through the city. It was 1975, the year local mobster Nick Civella was convicted on gambling charges, the year before Kansas City hosted the Republican National Convention and the Royals placed first in the American League West.

The visionaries kicked around different light rail ideas throughout the 1980s, and in 1992 the Area Transportation Authority won federal money to conduct a three-year study for a line to run from the City Market through the Plaza and south via Bruce Watkins Drive. From this study came an even bigger award: federal funds to advance the project into the engineering phase for a starter route between the Plaza and downtown. Although the city council, the ATA and the Mid-America Regional Council all backed the idea, the Chamber of Commerce and then-mayor Emanuel Cleaver saw the starter route's $200 million price tag as a waste. Even though the plan would have eventually included a citywide route, contentiousness killed the project. It was 1997, the year of Kansas City's light rail low point, typified by Cleaver's dismissal of the project as "touristy frou-frou" -- five obnoxious syllables still repeated ad nauseam by light rail detractors today.

"I don't know how that was possible, for people who have been active in various arenas in the community not to know that what we were planning was a regional transit system," says ATA light rail planner Jim Pritchett.

Enter Clay Chastain. With the ATA's proposal in tatters, the civic firebrand hijacked the idea, gathering enough signatures to put on the ballot a light rail plan that would run from his beloved Union Station to the airport, and he managed to get 45 percent of voters behind him. That number decreased the following year, when Chastain proposed a fifteen-year, one-cent sales tax increase to fund, among other things, a light rail route from the airport to an unspecified point somewhere south of the airport. Last fall, Chastain returned with a more specific proposal for a route between the airport and an actual destination (Waldo), with an east-west line along Volker Boulevard from Watkins Drive to the Plaza. He lost again, but for the third year in a row, the numbers hung around 40 percent despite having a high-profile, oft-mocked advocate leading the way.

Such trends read as good news to the city's planning department, which had started work in February 2000 on its own light rail project, in conjunction with the ATA, as a facet of FOCUS, the city's long-range development plan. If Chastain could snag so much support with napkin-planning and a petition drive, the city and all its resources surely could put together a light rail proposal that would have Kansas Citians dancing the locomotion.

This April, the city planning department released a final draft of the Central Business Corridor Transit Plan. That proposal, estimated to cost nearly $800 million, recommends a 23.8-mile light rail route from I-29 in the north to 75th and Bruce Watkins Drive in the south. The line runs from the Northland, past the City Market to downtown, by Union Station and Crown Center, through midtown via separate lines on Main and Troost, along Volker around the UMKC campus and then southward along Bruce Watkins Drive. The proposal was drafted by city planners, a team of consultants and more than one hundred citizens selected by Mayor Kay Barnes to serve on five light rail committees. It illustrates a Kansas City of the future, with street-level, electric-powered trains slicing through the city, picking up transit riders and tourists alike and whisking them to and fro. Bus routes feed into the rail line, and streetcars run to the 18th and Vine jazz district and down Southwest Boulevard. Approximately thirty stations line the route near major intersections; five of them allow people to park their cars and hop aboard. The city's principal thoroughfares, Main and Troost, look completely different, with just three lanes of traffic. Trains arrive every six minutes at most stops.

The plan doesn't end with the route. According to the proposal, if light rail passes, Kansas Citians can expect more than six million square feet of new office and retail development, 2,500 new residences and $1 billion in private investment around stations in the next twenty years. To facilitate that growth, planners have even designated the areas around light rail stops as "transit impact zones" where development will be actively encouraged. "Incentives may be financial, such as tax abatement," the proposal reads, "or they may be policy-oriented, such as modifications to parking requirements or assistance with land assembly."

The time is now, say light rail backers. On August 7, Kansas Citians will have the opportunity to approve a half-cent, 25-year sales tax increase that will fund 40 percent of the project. The final 60 percent will have to come from the federal government. Right now, Kansas City has a "placeholder" that will allow it to compete for funds should the plan pass. But if voters defeat the proposal, someplace else -- maybe Cincinnati -- could make off with that money.

"If we don't get in this authorization window, which will close in 2002, there won't be any money available until after 2007," says City Planning Director Vicki Noteis. "That's a big risk for us because other cities will then be using this money for fresh starts and extensions. We will be one of the last cities starting from scratch, and I'm not sure [the money] is going to be there in 2007." And encouraging news came last week, when the U.S. Senate allotted another $10 million for Kansas City light rail in its 2002 budget.

So why wait? The Central Business Corridor Transit Plan is easily the city's most ambitious and most researched light rail proposal yet, one that gets people into downtown, covers the heart of midtown and finally recognizes life east of Troost. If Chastain could manage 45 percent on an idea, then the planners behind this effort should have been able to rally an enthusiastic majority that would finally make light rail a reality in Kansas City. They haven't. Here's why.

Last fall, city planners set out into the community to gather public opinions on their initial light rail ideas. In more recent months, planners and light rail supporters returned to neighborhoods and organizations throughout the city to show off the product of expert advice and community feedback.

"There have been numerous presentations, very special presentations, all during the course of the study," the ATA's Pritchett says. "Presentations to neighborhood groups and associations, to the [Greater Kansas City] Chamber of Commerce, to the Northland Chamber of Commerce, to business groups and organizations on both sides of the Missouri River. There has been a tremendous amount of effort to try to make sure that there would be information that would be out there, and not only would the information be presented to people but we would hear the questions and comments and respond to those as well."

Some of those groups, however, didn't feel so special. In May, the Greater Kansas City Chamber complained about the plan's lack of details on several items, particularly with regard to how the proposal would affect existing infrastructure repair and how the financing plan would function if Kansas City failed to get federal money. "The devil is in the details," said Terry Dunn, chairman of the chamber's light rail task force and CEO of J.E. Dunn Construction. Two weeks later, the city responded not only with written answers to those questions but also with a stack of letters and press releases as reminders of the chamber's past attitude toward light rail, including a 1988 endorsement of an ATA plan. Nonetheless, on July 10, the chamber came out urging voters to reject the sales tax increase.

Strangely, that decision put Dunn and one of his employees, J.E. Dunn development manager Ken Bacchus -- who is a former city councilman -- on very public and very opposite sides of the light rail fight. Bacchus has served as chairman of the light rail route committee, and he's chairman of the pro-rail Regional Transit Alliance.

"It would have been wonderful to have the chamber's endorsement," Bacchus says. "After all, the organization that I head [the RTA] was created by the chamber specifically for the purpose of what we're doing."

For years, the Chamber of Commerce has offered its "conditional endorsement" to light rail initiatives if planners could meet the group's five-point criteria (that it be integrated into downtown attractions and midtown development; that it have strong political and business support; that private developers be willing to invest in and around the rail corridor; that construction and operation be adequately funded; and that it be well-marketed). The effect has been like the old dollar-bill-on-a-string trick. Just when light rail planners get duped into thinking they can snatch an endorsement, the chamber yanks back and lets fly with a flurry of news releases to spite the plan. After the group balked on the city's light rail plan in May, the mayor's office proposed a meeting between planners and the chamber's task force to settle the remaining issues. The two groups never met.

The chamber's opposition comes despite the fact that plenty of business leaders sat on committees to formulate city hall's official light rail effort. It's a bizarre situation that has forced light rail proponents to play up an unlikely underdog role that has some of the city's most powerful players dressed in political drag. "The establishment community has not embraced the idea, so raising the money is a little difficult," says a straight-faced Warren Erdman, who is serving as a board member and spokesman for the RTA -- and who, as a vice president of Kansas City Southern Industries, represents "the establishment community" as well as anyone.

More damaging, however, has been the trouble brewing for months in neighborhoods along the route. Some of the same people the city counted on -- Chastain's 45 percent -- not only have bailed but also are taking others with them.

Erin Anderson is one of them. Almost two years ago, Anderson moved into Old Hyde Park, a tree-lined community of nineteenth-century homes and colonnaded apartments located along the back streets of resurgent midtown. Although the cost was too high, Anderson and her husband fell in love with a classic two-and-a-half-story home off 38th and Gillham and decided to take the plunge. At one point, they represented the city's ideal couple: two progressive thinkers who lived close to the proposed light rail route, people who not only supported mass transit but also would benefit from the increased property values light rail tends to cause. "I think light rail is a good idea," Anderson says. "We need to move into the 21st century and get light rail. I voted for it in the last election. In fact, I still thought it was a great idea until I went to the Gem Theatre."

This past March, light rail planners sponsored a citywide forum at the Gem. Anderson arrived that night thinking that the anti-light rail ramblings she had been hearing from frazzled neighbors would be proven wrong, that city officials would answer all their questions "and everyone would go home happy." She had heard nightmarish rumors that the city's plan was an insidious trick, not so much about transportation as about redevelopment. Existing houses and businesses would be demolished so that "higher density" structures could fill juicy vacant lots. In the mind of the rattled midtown homeowner, nefarious developers would use the light rail plan's "transit impact zones" -- those areas designated for developmental tax incentives -- to plow out existing homes and businesses. To Anderson, this all sounded somewhat crazy, and she fully expected light rail planners to expose these concerns as paranoid nonsense.

So on the night of March 29, Anderson herself walked up to the microphone and asked Ken Bacchus point-blank what the light rail plan meant for her neighborhood, the area around 39th and Main Street. To her surprise, she says, he responded with information about what would happen along Troost.

"He would not answer my question," Anderson says. "And when I opened my mouth to ask again, he said we had to move on." Anderson began to suspect that some of her neighbors might be right.

The next day, Old Hyde Park president John Gladeau called city planners and began organizing a neighborhood meeting to discuss the light rail plan. When light rail project manager Joe Perry and coordinator Lisa Sturgeon met with more than fifty Old Hyde Park residents at the American Red Cross building on Armour Boulevard two months later, the crowd came versed on the proposal and its vague description of transit impact zones. The plan defined these as areas within an 800-foot (two-block) radius of light rail stations where "greater development densities and activity centers can be created in a more concentrated manner within the city's urban core."

But if light rail stations are such natural conduits for development, why give tax incentives that will only cost the city and its schools in tax revenue? Why allow concessions for development but not historic areas? The city plan predicted that $10.8 million would be invested in the area -- but where? How?

Perry's responses weren't specific enough for the Old Hyde Park residents, who became angry. "He was being much more forthright than other people have been," Anderson allows. "Yet he was suggesting things but not saying them." Whereas they once backed the plan, now Anderson and her husband spread the word that a vote for light rail could put them out of their dream home. In just a few months, several other Old Hyde Park residents have gone from being the sort of keystone supporters the city needs to being its most committed opponents.

"We've given the city opportunities to calm our fears," Gladeau says. "Time after time, in numerous meetings, that has not happened." For Gladeau, the development questions that lie within the city's light rail project are no surprise. In the past six years, he has been a part of Old Hyde Park's transformation from an area blighted with crime, drug use and slumlords into one of the urban core's trendiest spots. According to Gladeau, 52 houses have been purchased since 1995 and restored from rental properties into single-family homes. One house that sat vacant for fifteen years now has an occupant bringing it back to life. Gladeau has led the way as residents have put pride back into the area, filling neighborhood meetings, beautifying their homes and subsequently raising property values. The only problem, he says, is that those improvements have not gone unnoticed.

In March 1999, Gladeau and Old Hyde Park's then vice president, Lois Daniel, were invited to the architectural office of Berkebile, Nelson, Immenschuh and McDowell to discuss that firm's offer to work together on a neighborhood plan. Before long, Gladeau says, the meeting turned from a discussion into a lecture by Bob Berkebile, who advised Gladeau and Daniel on what changes they should expect within their community. They say Berkebile told them that some houses in the historic district would have to be demolished to meet the "demand for higher density housing." The two neighborhood representatives say they resented the tone of the meeting and voiced their opposition to any such changes. "He was not very pleased with us," Gladeau recalls. "He told us we needed to be open-minded concerning redevelopment of our neighborhood. He even had specific design ideas for new buildings that could be built in Old Hyde Park. We were appalled."

Berkebile did not return the Pitch's phone calls for this story.

Gladeau and Daniel say they left the meeting certain that no partnership between Old Hyde Park and BNIM Architects would ever exist, at least during their watch. But they wouldn't have a choice. Two years later, the city funded and then received a "review draft" for the Main Street Corridor Plan, a FOCUS-driven proposal to provide "a guide for future redevelopment related to land use, urban design and priority development areas" for the area from 20th Street to Volker and Broadway to Gillham.

The report was presented by BNIM Architects. "Main Street literally functions as the city's spine," the report reads, "connecting the downtown loop with the Country Club Plaza, the Brush Creek Corridor and residential areas to the south." The draft provides a comprehensive study of the entire area, including neighborhoods and businesses, with a significant amount of input coming from citizens within the community.

Nonetheless, the plan makes people like Gladeau nervous about the way it alludes to potential redevelopment options that could apply to the entire region. "Development financing, eminent domain and land assembly," it says, "are just a few of the tools available to assist qualified developments in the corridor." Now neighbors fear the house next door could become the office next door or, worse yet, the high-rise next door. And they look down to the corner of 39th and Main and imagine neighborhood favorite Hot Tamale Brown's, a Cajun restaurant in a former bank building with a drive-up window, getting the bulldozer.

"Berkebile already had a mindset of what he wanted to do in this area, and certainly that would affect what his company thought," Gladeau says. "[Their involvement] struck me ethically as a wrongdoing."

Between the Main Street Corridor Plan and the light rail plan, many midtown residents see language that is entirely too liberal and too vague, and they suspect a vote for light rail could commit them to far more than a new transit system. Although they've expressed these concerns again and again, no one has offered the answer that will make them think otherwise.

Particularly alarming to Old Hyde Park residents has been Perry's admission that if the MainCorr plan already had them concerned about redevelopment, the light rail plan wouldn't change that.

In the face of considerable public feedback, city planners have neither backed off the idea of impact zones nor scaled them back to cover only the actual commercial activity along Main. "I think it's pretty deliberate," Gladeau says. "Some people have come out and said this is going to be the greatest land grab in history."

While that concern may be relatively new in midtown, it's yesterday's news to some of downtown's small-business owners. Paul Thomas has spent the past thirty years worrying about who's eyeing his property and how easy the city will make it for that person to take it. As the owner of Justrite Rubber Stamp and Seal Co., which has been located on the corner of 13th and Grand since 1959, Thomas suspects the light rail trains will pull in a new wave of government-assisted redevelopment.

Thomas is still smarting from the fact that the $450 million TIF-aided -- and voter-approved -- Power and Light District almost booted him from downtown, and he wonders what will happen when a substantial chunk of downtown real estate falls within transit impact zones. "It's all wrapped up in that eminent domain thing," he says. "The city is giving away more property, or at least setting the means to do it. They've already given away a bunch of property downtown."

A core group of downtown small-business owners have joined Thomas in objecting to light rail, but complaints about the city's proposal are neither restricted to the urban core nor concerned solely with transit impact zones. Many citizens, from the Northland to south Kansas City, would like more specific information on a number of issues, such as where stations will be located, when and where construction will begin, how much of their property will need to be taken in order to construct the route and how traffic along Main and Troost will be dealt with during construction and after the line is built.

Carolyn Vellar, president of Northland Neighborhoods, says that while many people north of the river are concerned that the initial plan does not include the airport, some simply want the city to address the issues along the route. "I think there is a real concern about this and what it's going to do to the neighborhoods, especially in the downtown area and along Main Street," she says. "I think there are too many questions that people aren't comfortable with, and they don't like the answers."

A different issue altogether rolls past the boarded-up windows, empty storefronts and fragile housing that line the barren section of Troost around 31st Street. Here, shop owners and residents are less concerned about impact zones than they are with a tax increase and whether it will spur the redevelopment city planners assure. The city projects that a light rail route along Troost would create more than $93 million in investments over a twenty-year period, a shaky figure based on the amount of development currently possible and population projections, but many people in the area can't envision such a rosy future. "I don't think that will happen," says Gloria Nelson, president of the Center City Neighborhood Association. "Business was once real good, but then it went down, and I don't see it improving. It might, but I don't see it."

Although the plan received the endorsement of Freedom Inc., a black political organization, a vision clearly hasn't been sold to people along Troost. Some business owners are even surprised to hear that a light rail track may run down their street. For an area that certainly would benefit from both an advanced transit system and any development it could bring, the lack of interest and knowledge about light rail on Troost Avenue might stand as the plan's biggest failure so far.

Criticism has reached the point that several community groups from around the city have organized what amounts to an emergency forum scheduled for July 19 at the Second Presbyterian Church on 55th Street. They've invited a heavyweight panel that includes Pritchett, Bacchus, Erdman, Noteis and the chairman of the light rail steering committee, Leonard Graham. "Hopefully, by having a forum that brings in neighborhoods from all over the city, everyone's questions can be answered at one location rather than having a forum here, a forum there, a forum here, where you have different people speaking and giving out different information," Vellar says.

The panel has agreed to answer ten presubmitted questions and may respond to additional questions from the audience.

City planners and light rail supporters maintain that theirs is the classic catch-22 situation, the same sort of problem that plagued light rail in 1997: Present a short route proposal to the public and a longer route makes more sense; present a long route proposal and a shorter route seems more prudent.

Today, however, the catch is in the details. They can't fully answer voters' questions -- about the route, funding, economic incentives, development -- until they proceed to the design and engineering phase, but they can't proceed to the design and engineering phase until voters approve the proposal.

Light rail supporters will try to make up for what they can't answer with a last-minute push to reach voters through their Challenge Inertia campaign, a brainchild of political strategist Pat Gray's NorthStar Marketing Group. Citizens for Light Rail, a committee of professionals and business leaders backing the city's plan, intends to promote the proposal through pro-rail stickers, fliers and yard signs and will attempt to elicit support from current transit riders by lobbying at bus stops. The group also plans to display a light rail car at Union Station.

According to Warren Erdman, Citizens for Light Rail will emphasize what it can say about the plan in lieu of offering up specific details. "If you can't answer all the questions with absolute precision, then you don't have all the answers," Erdman says. "Well, of course not. What we have put forward is a well-documented community proposal with the input of thousands of Kansas Citians. It's been documented with professionals in the field. We don't have every specific detail about every stop, because that's what you do during the engineering phase."

As luck would have it, the development issues that have generated the plan's most damning controversy are out of the hands of the one man who's been trying to bring light rail to Kansas City for more than twenty years. As rail planner for the ATA, Jim Pritchett has taken part in countless studies, fought to keep federal funding flowing into Kansas City and worked on numerous route plans before arriving at this, the city's best plan yet.

"I think it's important to keep in mind," Pritchett says, "that the basic intent of this plan was to develop information around which consensus could be built on an alignment and a technology and a funding mechanism primarily.

"And," he adds, "to develop some information on economic development impacts and their potential." Unfortunately for Pritchett, the "economic development impacts" he mentions almost as an afterthought could obliterate the public consensus about the whole project.

Still, the greatest irony may be that the inspiration for those transit impact zones, the ones that have inspired several neighborhood freak-outs and one war council at Chubby's, came from the Chamber of Commerce. "Organizations like the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce recommended that support of light rail transit in Kansas City be conditioned upon the recognition that transit development fit within a broader planning context and that private developers be willing to invest in and around new light rail corridors," reads the Central Business Corridor Transit Plan, which goes on to introduce the concept of transit impact zones.

So the Chamber of Commerce inspired the transit impact zones, which in turn inspired many citizens not only to abandon light rail but also to fight it -- which is now presumably fine by the chamber. After all, it won't have to spend any money to campaign against the plan it now opposes.

So with less than a month before the election, light rail pushers have neither the business establishment's nor the general community's support. Out of this malaise comes Citizens Against Rail Plan, an organization that, despite its grassroots nature, has a base of voters the city lacks. While the emergence of a tax-loathing anti-rail group such as Citizens for Responsible Spending was to be expected, the city could have avoided the CARPing from citizens who continue to insist that it's only the light rail plan -- not light rail itself -- they're against. Though the group is mainly against the impact zones, it intends to come at the city from all angles. It may even usher in Wendell Cox, a former Los Angeles rail planner who is notorious in transit circles for his willingness to campaign against light rail proposals anytime, anywhere.

But in the end, the city's worst enemy might be itself.

That fact may have been expressed by a citizen named Henry Hauschild in a question submitted for the July 19 light rail forum. With all the history and the resources behind this effort, Hauschild wonders, where's the leadership? Where's the grand vision that will lift spirits and inspire imaginations? "Whether light rail is good or bad, there has been no leadership that has in any way effectively presented the pro side of the issue," he laments. "There is no magic or enthusiasm. It's a lot of money to spend, and it could be spent on a lot of other things. I don't think the people have been given a reason to spend it."


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