Yep, to everyone's shock, voters last week approved Chastain's latest light-rail proposal. The plan calls for a line from Swope Park to the airport, a fleet of electric shuttles and a band of aerial gondolas over Penn Valley Park no loogies, please.
Until last Tuesday, rejecting transit plans was practically an annual rite in Kansas City. Six proposals in the previous eight years had failed. Sure, Chastain came close in 1998, when one of his ballot initiatives received 45 percent of the vote. Hell, The Kansas City Star endorsed his 1999 proposal.
As the defeats mounted, even Chastain appeared to tire of his act. He left town in 2001 and now lives in western Virginia. He seemed to mean it for once when he told the Pitch that he had circulated his final petition ("Crazy Train," October 26).
But not without one last fight. Chastain told reporters before the election that the world had changed. Concerns about global warming, gas prices and energy wars, he said, made light rail necessary not "touristy froufrou," as then-Mayor Emanuel Cleaver II famously dissed a 1997 transit plan.
Chastain, it turns out, had other things going for his proposal, such as a heavy turnout of lefties who showed up to vote for Claire McCaskill and stem cells. The ballot language also helped. Nowhere did a price tag appear the question simply asked voters whether they wanted to extend the 3/8-cent sales tax they'd passed in 2003 to help out the bus system. Chastain puts the cost of his project at $975 million, a figure that transit officials say is too low and too dependent on the generosity of the federal government.
The "establishment" Chastain's term for his critics, real and imagined decided to more or less ignore him and mounted only a token anti-Question 2 campaign. Funded by James B. Nutter and some road-building interests, campaign consultant Pat O'Neill bought ads in the Star that depicted Chastain's plan as just scribbles on the back of a napkin. Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce President Peter Levi chipped in with an op-ed piece calling for a resounding no vote. Levi also outlined the basics of Smart Moves, a bus-reliant regional transit plan that's been in the works.
But the voters decided they'd had enough of a transportation system that would shame a South American. Screw the details and give us some trains!
The mayor and the City Council will now try to make sense of the people's overly detailed, underfunded demand. Smiling through gritted teeth, officials say they're excited that voters have finally said yes to light rail.
"The good news is that there's some support for investing in pubic transit, and I'm taking that as a positive step forward," David Warm, the head of the Mid-America Regional Council, tells the Strip.
At the same time, city leaders don't believe that the system Chastain designed can be delivered for the price. There's also the not-insignificant question of how the bus system will function when its sales tax is diverted to building trains, starting in 2009.
The Strip went to City Hall last Thursday and saw bewilderment on the faces of council members. Mayor Kay Barnes essentially threw up her hands when she suggested that the next mayor and council do the "heavy lifting."
The city has work to do, all right. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, provided that "work" doesn't mean hiring a bunch of $300-an-hour lawyers to look for ways to render the will of the people a cute artifact.
City leaders may want to secretly curse madcap Chastain, but he doesn't deserve all of the blame (or credit). There's plenty to go around.
There's Cleaver, for one. As mayor, he made that "froufrou" comment after gentry (including R. Crosby Kemper) began to harrumph about the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority's proposed light-rail line from the River Market to the Country Club Plaza. The plan promptly disintegrated. As a candidate for Congress in 2004, Cleaver went in another direction, telling voters that he'd work to bring light rail to Kansas City. Cleaver was elected, but the promise got lost on a baggage carousel somewhere. Then, in October, Cleaver infuriated Smart Moves advocates while chatting about light rail with a Star columnist. The interview presented an opportunity for the congressman to gently ridicule Chastain's latest proposal and present an alternative. Instead, Cleaver said he admired Chastain's tenacity the equivalent of complimenting a lunatic on his straitjacket's exciting features.
For another, there's the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. In 2001, the ATA gathered the courage to ask voters for a sales tax to pay for a 24-mile light-rail line. But the chamber refused to endorse the plan, saying that it would cost too much and accomplish too little. The chamber's antipathy drained the campaign of the financial support it needed, and the proposal failed.
Maybe if the chamber had supported the idea, the city wouldn't find itself in the predicament it's in today. Chastain told the Pitch in October that we would have heard the last of him if a light-rail line from downtown to the Plaza had been built. But it wasn't. So now we get ski lifts.
The chamber was in the process of revising history when the Strip called to chat. "I'm not sure the ATA has ever had a light-rail plan," chamber spokeswoman Pam Whiting said. Corrected by this cutlet, Whiting found a statement from 2001 in which the chamber said that light rail was "not a priority." It wasn't for the executive class, at least.
Don't forget the mayor and the council. Is it just the Strip, or did Barnes lose the energy to lead once downtown became the big construction zone of her dreams? Seriously, what's Madame Mayor done in the last 18 months, besides push rain gardens and endorse a doddering old man for county executive? Oh, Barnes speaks vaguely about "connectivity," but she failed to make transit a priority. The City Council a cautious bunch, with every other member wanting to become the next mayor has also failed to make much progress in the area of auto independency; in fact, it approves every far-flung development that comes through the door. "I've worked on transit vigorously for the last five years," Chuck Eddy, one of the mayoral hopefuls, tells the Strip.
Shhyeah, right. This skeptical sirloin doesn't recall too many lively discussions on the subject breaking out at City Hall.
Then there's the Star. Being a newspaper patty itself, the Strip has some reservations about laying down its blame-the-media card. But the Star helped make this mess. The Strip is mostly irked with the writer of the headline on Hearne Christopher Jr.'s October 4 column that read "Cleaver joins Chastain's rally for rail" a headline that was inaccurate. ("Oh, I probably will not vote for it," Cleaver was quoted as saying.) A month later, this scare headline appeared in the paper: "Light rail vote may be finale." The story went on to suggest that if residents voted down Chastain's proposal, preposterous as it was, Kansas City would join the league of Tulsa and Des Moines for a generation.
Finally, there were transit advocates. It's hard to fault the Area Transportation Authority and the Mid-America Regional Council, the primary sponsors of Smart Moves, for supporting low-cost imitations of light rail. (Smart Moves is essentially the MAX bus, times 10.) Convincing people of light rail's merits had become an exercise in futility. Still, what if transit advocates had been able to produce their own model of Clay Chastain, someone with the same passion and determination but without a personality disorder? It didn't happen, and the void allowed Chastain to dominate the debate, even in absentia.
Chances are, in a year or 18 months, Kansas City voters will be asked to fix the mistake they made when they approved a half-baked transit plan. But the Strip hopes that their intent survives intact. After all, when cities lay a few tracks of light rail, they tend to find ways to add to the system.
Meanwhile, here's the Strip's next assignment for Chastain: Fix the sewers, homeboy!