By Jeff Fox

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders says officials are still working on plans for a commuter rail system that would connect Kansas City and Eastern Jackson County.

“We continue to work on commuter rail. We’re continuing to work with our railroad partner,” Sanders said Monday. He added that the talks have been “very productive,” though there is no timetable for when plans would move forward.

This comes after the release of a report that all but ruled out an option that officials had set aside already – centering the commuter rail network at Union Station.

That hangup early this year put commuter rail plans on hold. Sanders had been set to go to the voters with a plan, and a sales tax to help pay for it, this year.

The original plan, unveiled four years ago this month, included six lines – with one to Independence, Blue Springs and Grain Valley, and one to Lee’s Summit – all meeting at Union Station. Others would have gone to the airport, Kansas Speedway, Grandview and Liberty. One of the plan’s main selling points has been that his plan relies on existing track, much of it unused or lightly used, making it far cheaper than building a system from the ground up.

But the Union Station idea turned out to be problematic because what’s called the trench – the triple-track area east of Union Station – is already full of freight trains and in fact a fourth set of tracks for freight will likely be needed in the future.

Adding tracks just for passenger service would be expensive. Up to two dozen bridges would have to be replaced, a significant amount of private property would be bought, and neighborhoods would be disrupted.

“Accessing the trench is not a financially viable alternative,” said Tom Gerend, assistant director of transportation at the Mid-America Regional Council.

So officials last year shifted their focus to Third Street and Grand Avenue in the River Market area. That’s the north end of the two-mile streetcar line Kansas City plans to open in 2015, and Union Station is the south end. County officials have said going to Third and Grand is fine, since for commuters getting off a train and onto a streetcar it would make little overall difference.

The county had been talking with two railroads. The Union Pacific owns the old Rock Island line that would be used to reach Lee’s Summit. The Kansas City Southern owns a line through Independence, Blue Springs and Grain Valley. The UP was OK with Third and Grand, as county officials described it, but the Kansas City Southern was holding out for Union Station, and the impasse forced Sanders to shelve his plans.

Now the “Trench Feasibility Study” that MARC and other area agencies released last week confirms that the modified plan is the far cheaper alternative – $168 million to $198 million to get from I-435 to Third and Grand compared with $758.8 million to $1.16 billion to get from I-435 to Union Station.

“I think by and large this reinforces the recommendation we made a year ago,” Gerend said.

Over the long term, officials have said, they do want to get to Union Station. In part, it would probably involve going down Truman Road in Kansas City.

In the meantime, officials plan to move ahead with a commuter rail plan that’s integrated with bus service and keep refining their plans.

“So we’ve got some work to do,” Gerend said.