Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders sees Omaha in his nightmares.
He dreads the day that he and his family visit Nebraska's largest city and board a train to get around, thanks to a big pile of money delivered by the U.S. government.
And it's not just Omaha that keeps Sanders awake. It happens when he imagines rail projects in Denver and Indianapolis, both subsidized by his federal income taxes. Meanwhile, his hometown is stuck in the Bus Age. To live here is to wonder if a city father made a pact with a devil that invested heavily in tire companies.
Sanders wants the bad dreams to end. As he sees it, the federal government may dole out between $30 billion and $50 billion for rail transit in the next year. Then the grants will dry up, as Washington tries to reckon the national debt. The next federal transit bill represents one last orgy before the Viagra runs out. Sanders wants the region to join the fun.
"Either we are in line to receive some of these dollars," he says, "or we are not in line to receive some of these dollars."
He is addressing a group of lunch-digesting Rotarians at the Drumm Farm Golf Club in Independence, and dispensing a shortened version of the plan that he has spent months promoting in conference rooms and union halls. Speaking at his trademark 200-words-a-minute clip, he describes the concept that he calls "regional rapid rail," a plan that would take advantage of Kansas City's underused and abandoned rail lines to connect residential areas, jobs and attractions.
It's a tantalizing proposal. The 134-mile system crosses the state line, puts Union Station back to work and delivers Chiefs fans to within 600 feet of Arrowhead Stadium. Those $110 cab rides from KCI to Lee's Summit? They'll seem downright insane from the comfort of a diesel-powered railcar.
When he rolled out the concept last fall, he said the federal government would cover the entire $1 billion capital cost of the project. Over time, reality has worn down the optimistic shine of Sanders' presentation. He acknowledges today that residents may need to come up with a 20-percent match in funds.
At Drumm Farm, however, he holds tight to the idea that Kansas City has been transit-starved for so long, the feds might cover the full bill.
"Frankly, a billion bucks is a drop in the bucket compared to what they've done to fund transit plans all throughout America," he says. "Our plan is very competitive. Our request is, 'We don't want a local match. We think we deserve these dollars back in the Greater Kansas City area.'"
The federal government, though, doesn't think any rail project "deserves" full funding. Federal grants typically cover 50 to 60 percent of costs, even on more humble bus projects. In addition to the local match in capital costs, area taxpayers would have to kick in a subsidy to operate commuter trains, much as the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority relies on the sales tax to run the buses.
Such disheartening details rarely make their way into Sanders' spiel. That's why the pitch works, even for a group of Crown Vic-driving Rotarians. He talks about rail's potential to entice relocating businesses. And he makes it sound as though construction could start tomorrow, as if all that's left to do is name the whistle stops.
"They've engineered this down to the spike," he says of TranSystems, the Kansas City consulting company that helped design his vision.
Still, prospective train conductors have time to polish their résumés and cleanse their urine. The county only recently completed its application for a grant to merely study parts of the plan. The study would weigh the benefits of a commuter rail line in Jackson County along Interstate 70, with a branch to Lee's Summit.
Train service to the airport, Liberty and Grandview does not fit into this picture. But Sanders' spokesman rejects a suggestion that the 134-mile concept is too grandiose and should be quietly shelved for something more practical.
"I hear some sort of naysayers talking about how we've given up on the regional vision, that we've sort of surrendered," Calvin Williford tells me. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Sanders isn't the first politician wanting to transport people on the area's existing ribbons of train tracks. In the late 1990s, Johnson County leaders considered commuter trains as a way to relieve congestion on Interstate 35. In 2008, Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser pitched a regional transit system that included commuter rail.
But moving Kansas Citians on existing rails remains part pipe dream, part punch line. Concerns about low ridership plus a lack of political will doomed the Johnson County proposal. Funkhouser, unable to forge an agreement on a regional approach, was forced to get behind an effort to build a 14-mile, light-rail "starter line." Kansas City voters rejected that idea, too.
Mass transit, as Funkhouser and others have learned, is difficult to implement in a place so obviously comfortable with life behind the wheel. Decades of sprawl make it hard to devise a plan that attracts a lot of riders for less than the price of a moon launch.
As a result, the region remains a blank canvas in terms of rail transit. Sanders says that's a selling point. "What we're told ... is that we have the most attractive transit plan right now being pitched in America," he says. "We have a great story to sell."
Ultimately, though, someone has to buy what the region is selling. And that looks unlikely. Sanders can't identify a commuter rail system that the federal government furnished with $800 million or $1 billion. In fact, officials at the Federal Transit Administration appear worried about the cost of maintaining existing track, saying recently that it would take $77 billion to just get the country's public-transit systems into shape.
"Mike Sanders will find himself standing in line behind virtually every metro in the country, each of which is planning a transit investment," says Yonah Freemark, who tracks transit projects at the Transport Politic blog. "Commuter rail in Kansas City isn't going to happen soon."
Sanders will also have to convince voters to do something they've never been willing to do. The only light-rail ballot measure that succeeded with voters promised to go to the airport — without a new tax. Advocate Clay Chastain designed that initiative, and the City Council later decided it was too ridiculous to even try.
Such past failures might have caused Sanders to stay away from mass transit altogether. He certainly could have picked a more manageable pet project. Instead, he took on an enterprise that's subject to the whims of Washington and haunted by the ghosts of seven failed light-rail ballot initiatives.
"Mike chose to do it," Williford says. "He is using a lot of his political capital in ways that make some people shake their heads because no one's been successful in making this happen. But it's what he believes will help the community."
As he makes his way from union hall to banquet room, Sanders relies on a familiar refrain: that Kansas City never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. And there's a lot of truth to that. Had politicians in the past pushed as hard as Sanders is pushing now, our mass-transit options would not be topping out at a bus.