The rapid transit dream rides again.

Life in the Fast Lane 

The rapid transit dream rides again.

Jim Pritchett sits beneath the massive, thousand-pound clock inside Union Station with time on his mind.

"Time seems to be a commodity that has become far more sophisticated and far more important to us than ever before," he muses. "We make decisions every day based on how we're going to save time, even if it's thirty seconds."

In the past seventeen years, Pritchett has spent more time than anyone in Kansas City trying to solve one of the area's most vexing problems. As the projects manager for the Area Transportation Authority, Pritchett keeps trying to sell the city a better public transportation system.

In the process, he's been bashed by a former mayor and overshadowed by pervasive activist Clay Chastain. But on May 21, Pritchett got a lift from the ATA board of commissioners, who approved his plan for a 9-mile Bus Rapid Transit line from the River Market to 75th Street and Wornall Road.

BRT is the newest trend in public transportation, a low-cost marriage between traditional buses and expensive light rail. It comes to Kansas City only after two high-profile light-rail campaigns went down in flames, burning Pritchett both times.

This time around, Pritchett is taking a different route. By keeping the BRT project cheap, he avoids the ballot box; and by avoiding the ballot box, he sidesteps defeat.

Yet whether he ultimately succeeds will still depend on voters.

Pritchett started at the ATA in 1986, when he was hired as director of planning and marketing -- a role that put him in charge of developing light rail in Kansas City. In 1992, he snagged federal funding to design a starter route from the City Market to the Plaza, which led to more federal money for an engineering phase.

But the effort fell apart under intense scrutiny five years later, when critics blasted the ATA for being shortsighted. Most notably, then-Mayor Emanuel Cleaver dismissed the project as "touristy frou-frou" and called for a change of leadership at the ATA. "We were often told in meetings, 'You know, your vision isn't big enough,'" Pritchett recalls.

By that time, starter light-rail lines in Dallas, Denver and St. Louis, each less than five years old, were already surpassing ridership predictions.

Adding insult to the ATA's injury, Chastain stole the transit limelight with three straight light-rail initiatives -- including streetcars, gondolas and a ferris wheel -- in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Voters rejected each proposal, but not before Pritchett had been forced to campaign against the petitioner's populist pipe dreams.

Two years ago, Pritchett and his colleagues returned with a new design that elongated the starter route but also quadrupled the price.

Opposition came from all over the metro, with insurmountable forces being Northland voters and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. In the north, voters trounced the plan because it didn't go past them on its way to the airport. Meanwhile, the chamber pulled a disappearing act, initially granting its "conditional" endorsement of light rail, then withdrawing its support weeks before the election ("Dead in Its Tracks," July 19, 2001). In August 2001, voters killed what might have been Kansas City's last chance at light rail for decades to come.

For the second time in four years, Pritchett had taken his ideas to the political arena only to see them steamrolled by forces beyond his control.

Obviously, the consensus was that Kansas City didn't need light rail, at least not enough to warrant an increase in sales tax.

So Pritchett looked to BRT, a young technology embraced by cities such as Boston, Cleveland, Miami, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.

Next to light rail, BRT is weenie transit. Some cities even use BRT temporarily during the construction of light-rail lines. Whereas light-rail cars have a distinctive appearance, most BRT vehicles still resemble city buses.

But BRT is at least something. Recognizing the downside of traditional bus systems -- low speeds, long commutes, high operating costs, putrid reputations -- the federal government is pushing cities toward BRT, which gives buses their own lanes and allows drivers to ward off red lights. Passengers get quicker, more comfortable trips as well as dedicated shelters equipped with intelligence systems that show precisely when the next bus will arrive.

Price is another plus. With the Kansas City plan pegged at just $26 million, BRT costs much less than light rail. The ATA already has $16 million in the bag, most of it from the federal government. Despite a slender transportation budget proposed by President George W. Bush earlier this month to bipartisan grumbling, Pritchett says he's confident that a request for the additional $10 million will be fulfilled. "We have made the case to justify the $10 million," he says.

The BRT line will run down Main Street, connecting such landmarks as the Country Club Plaza, Crown Center, Union Station, Bartle Hall and the City Market. But Pritchett says the ATA has greater expectations for BRT than just ferrying out-of-towners from shop to shop.

"This is a corridor that has potential transit riders who would use the transit system if they weren't concerned about confusion," he says.

In other words, many people near Main Street don't use public transportation because they're afraid they might get on the wrong bus. BRT would eliminate that fear, Pritchett argues, by establishing a clear-cut route with vehicles and shelters that are easy to identify.

Construction will take place throughout 2004, with the operation starting in spring 2005. For the first three years, it will be funded through a federal grant rewarding projects that reduce traffic congestion and pollution.

After that, however, voters will decide the fate of BRT.

The reason for that goes back more than three decades, when politicians on both sides of the state line haggled over how to create the ATA. In the end, they produced a regional transit company but failed to provide it with a way of collecting regional funds. They decided the ATA board of commissioners would include five Missouri residents and five Kansas residents but gave the agency no way to collect money from communities in both states. As a result, the ATA has all the power it needs but little of the money.

So while cities around the country create and expand reliable forms of public transportation, Kansas City struggles just to sustain a patchwork bus system that more than 30,000 residents depend on each day. The city spends just $33 a citizen on transit, a fraction of the investment in, say, St. Louis ($71), Dallas ($156) and Denver ($168).

For more than a year, the ATA has been working with the Mid-America Regional Council to change that, designing a twelve-year plan for public transportation in the Kansas City region. The success of that plan, however, depends on one of the city's quietest advocacy groups, the Regional Transit Alliance. Created in 1998, the RTA has been slow to advocate anything, often leaving its own constituents in the dark about public transportation issues.

But not for long, its leaders claim. "The case has not been made for transit in this city the way it will be made in the next six months," says RTA board member Tim Truesdale. The group has scheduled its annual party for June 10 at Drexel Hall (3301 Baltimore).

The RTA's job will be to sell citizens on the vision -- which includes future BRT lines running to the Northland, Overland Park and Independence -- and then ask them to pay for it. By the time BRT is running on Main Street, they hope to have enough support to pass a metrowide transportation tax similar to the bistate tax that helped renovate Union Station.

Complicating matters, though, is Chastain, who has reappeared from his new home in Tennessee to tout another transportation plan.

On May 25, The Kansas City Star published an "As I See It" column by Chastain calling for a massive transportation project that would include light rail, streetcars, electric buses and BRT, all paid for by a half-cent sales tax increase for twelve years. "When considering this transit proposal," he wrote, "I ask that you not consider Clay Chastain as the issue, but the welfare of your community and your future."

Chastain's efforts won't derail Pritchett's BRT plan. But they could cause problems for the RTA's efforts to secure BRT's metrowide future. Pritchett and his colleagues will once again have to distinguish themselves from Chastain -- and perhaps even campaign against him if the activist makes the ballot for what would be the fifth time in six years. That would force them to use up valuable time playing defense instead of pushing their own ideas.

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