KC's light-rail villains look poised to mount another attack 

It could have happened. Today, in fact, city officials might be cutting the ribbon on a light-rail line stretching from Vivion Road to 75th Street.

In 2001, the city went to Kansas City voters with its first and only light-rail plan. (All other ballot questions have been Clay Chastain productions.) For the price of a half-percent sales tax, the city proposed laying 24 miles of track.

Estimated opening date: 2008.

The date has arrived. Gasoline costs $4 a gallon. But instead of light rail, our public transportation options top out at a bus line with a different paint scheme.

We did not arrive at this moment by chance. Light rail has had its opponents. And to date, the opponents have won.

Who are these foes? Who has bound Kansas City to rubber tires as Denver and St. Louis have added capacity to rail systems that move tens of thousands of people a day?

Rich farts and road builders, mostly. And signs indicate that they're willing to wage war against the next light-rail plan to appear before voters.

Recently, the city's business establishment sent warning letters to city officials. The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Civic Council wrote that they would not support light rail unless the city developed a 10-year plan and performed other financial housekeeping.

On its face, this is a reasonable request. But people who want light rail have reason to be wary. Some of the same people now withholding support of light rail were among the Legion of Doom that crushed previous efforts.

The first takedown occurred in 1997, when the Area Transportation Authority put together a proposal to build a starter line from the Country Club Plaza to the River Market.

The city's elite hated the plan. UMB Bank Chairman R. Crosby Kemper Jr. said a route along Grand would destroy the "grandest boulevard in Kansas City." Mortgage banker and kingmaker James Nutter Sr. announced that he was against light rail "in principle." Thomas McDonnell, president of DST Systems, was also critical.

The mayor at the time, Emanuel Cleaver II, delivered the death blow. At a breakfast event in Westport, Cleaver declared the starter route to be "touristy froufrou."

Cleaver said he wanted to see a system that better connected residents to jobs in the suburbs. But he was also carrying out the business community's wishes. Cleaver reportedly met with Chamber of Commerce officials the day before he made the froufrou remark. Once he had embarrassed the transportation authority, Cleaver asked the Chamber to come up with recommendations. Months later, Chamber leaders said the city lacked the will to build light rail. Result: Nothing happened.

Cleaver's successor, Kay Barnes, backed the 2001 proposal. But it ran up against the same characters who smothered the 1997 plan before it could get on the ballot.

In the days leading up to the 2001 vote, an opposition group called Citizens for Responsible Transit collected nearly $200,000. Citizens in only the strictest sense of the word, donors included Nutter; DST; the Chamber of Commerce; and James M. Kemper, Crosby Kemper Jr.'s cousin.

The biggest hunk of money came from a group that promotes spending on highways, roads and bridges. The Heavy Constructors Association gave $70,400.

Trailing in the polls, the light-rail proposal could not surmount the attack ads that the "citizens" put on TV. The defeat chastened Barnes and other politicians. Light rail disappeared from the discussion until voters approved a Hail Mary pass that Chastain put on the ballot in 2006.

So here we are, trying to make up for lost time. The City Council voted to rescind the Chastain plan while promising to replace it with something more attainable. Mayor Mark Funkhouser is pushing a regional system supported by a sales tax in Jackson, Clay and Platte counties.

The debate seemed to be moving along just fine. Then, 10 days apart, the city's two most powerful business organizations began issuing ultimatums.

It's possible that the letters weren't intended as bloody horse heads. "Please be assured that we believe that Kansas City needs a regional transit system to be a successful 21st Century city," the Civic Council wrote in its June 3 letter.

But Terry Dunn's signature at the bottom of the page does lead one to wonder whether the 10-year financial plan is this decade's touristy froufrou. Dunn, the president of J.E. Dunn Construction, gave $1,000 to Citizens for Responsible Transit in 2001. Also, I presume that the head of the city's largest construction company chats occasionally with members of the Heavy Constructors, a group that would like to see the region continue to pave itself into oblivion. (Dunn was out of town and unavailable for comment.)

Chamber spokeswoman Pam Whiting tells me that her group's June 13 letter followed months of meetings with city officials. Whiting says the economic downturn, the city's grim financial picture and other needs prompted the chamber to issue a note of caution on light rail. "We've got to do the sewers," Whiting says. "The EPA gives us no wiggle room on that."

Still, the timing seems strange. The chamber didn't tsk-tsk when the City Council approved risky subsidies for the Power & Light District. City Manager Wayne Cauthen got a pass when he submitted a 2009 budget that assumed $2.50-a-gallon fuel prices.

No, it's light rail that causes the chamber to pull out a green eye shade and worry.

Maybe the Civic Council and the Chamber of Commerce are just feeling left out. Maybe the letters are an attempt to reassert control over an agenda that Funkhouser has set without their permission.

Skepticism seems in order, however. The Civic Council says it's unwilling to "further burden" residents with a new tax unless a realistic financial plan is adopted. But until the people who think they know what's best for Kansas City — and who have been on the wrong side of this issue for so long — admit their mistakes, their concern for the well-being of regular people is hard to stomach.

Like 99 percent of you, I didn't take public transit to work today. One of the streets I drive down is Grand. As I passed a strip joint on Crosby Kemper’s beloved boulevard, I had a powerful urge to tell every swell in this town to get bent.

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