Jackson County legislators on Friday reinterated that the metro area needs a commuter rail plan for the sake its long-term growth.
County Executive Mike Sanders rolled out such a proposal four years ago this month. Plans to go to the voters were shelved months ago, but Sanders this week said a new announcement could be coming in what he called the “not-too-distant future.”
“The biggest thing we can do – the thing I’m most hopeful on – is commuter rail,” Legislator Greg Grounds said Friday at an Independence Chamber of Commerce gathering at which officials discussed a range of county issues. Grounds, R-Blue Springs, is chairman of the County Legislature this year.
Legislator Theresa Garza-Ruiz, D-Kansas City, echoed Grounds’ comments.
“We see how important it is to the community. ... We hear that this is such a huge need,” she said.
All along, the plan had been for first two lines of that system to go from downtown Kansas City to Eastern Jackson County – one to Independence, Blue Springs and Grain Valley and one to Raytown and Lee’s Summit. Grounds said that approach still makes sense given the volume of commuters on Interstate 70. The Missouri Department of Transportation has said that widening I-70 west of Blue Springs is all but out of the question.
“Well, we’ve got to put it (commuter rail) in Eastern Jackson County first,” Independence Mayor Don Reimal said at the chamber event.
Grounds said other large cities around the country have adopted similar transit systems and said commuter rail could transform the city. Reimal pointed to the history of new development clustering wherever stops are put in. Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, said that’s already starting along the two-mile streetcar line Kansas City plans to open in 2015.
However, early this year Sanders had to delay his plans, which included putting a half-cent or one-cent sales taxes to the voters. The Kansas City Southern, which had long supported the idea, pulled back, citing a disagreement over exactly where the lines would terminate in Kansas City. The KCS owns the line that was to have been used for the Independence/Blue Springs/Grain Valley route. The Union Pacific owns the line for the Raytown/Lee’s Summit route.
“We continue to work on commuter rail,” Sanders said two weeks ago. “We’re continuing to work with our railroad partner.” Then this week, also at an Independence chamber function, he said an announcement could come “in the not-too-distant future.”
Because it would use existing tracks, Sanders said, the cost of starting a commuter rail system would be a fraction – 11, 12, maybe 13 percent, he said – of building a system from scratch. He acknowledged the discussion, largely brought on by next month’s vote on a translational medical research tax, about where the voters might draw the line on sale tax rates, but he said polling shows consistent and strong support for upgraded mass transit centered on commuter rail.
The original Sanders plan called for six lines, including one to the airport, That’s still the long-term hope, but for a couple of years officials have focused on the first two lines just within Jackson County, meaning fewer jurisdictional issues to work out and fewer officials around the region to get on board right away.
Williams suggested that’s OK, just to get the system up and running.
“It’s just a fact,” she said, “that Jackson County’s always been the innovator in this region.”