Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders puts his energy and his reputation into an unlikely commuter-rail plan 

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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.

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