By Jeff Fox
Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders on Friday renewed his call for a commuter rail system and said productive talks continue with railroads whose tracks would be used.
“We expect some exciting developments in the near future,” Sanders said shortly after delivering his annual state-of-the-county address at Union Station.
As Sanders has outlined his plan in the past, the first lines of that commuter rail system would connect Eastern Jackson County with downtown Kansas City. He did not give specifics on Friday but has made it clear that the essential idea he outlined four years ago – several lines meeting in Kansas City, using existing tracks to sharply lower costs – remains the goal.
“These generational investments never move as quickly as we want them to move,” he said.
Early in the year, it looked as if a commuter rail plan was headed for a decision by the voters, but the two railroads whose lines the county needs first – the Kansas City Southern and the Union Pacific – have disagreed over whether those initial lines would run to Union Station or to Third and Grand in the River Market area. That forced Sanders to pull back, but on Friday he said there are “substantial and very productive conversations going on” with the railroads.
He also said the county will work hard to win federal transit money and questioned whether a local tax, approved by the voters, would even be needed.
“That’s not even in the cards right now,” he said.
The first step, he said, is getting an agreement with the railroads. Kansas City is the nation’s largest freight-rail hub, and over the years it’s built up an abundance of idle or little-used track. Putting some of that to use for commuter rail service is far easier and cheaper – one-tenth the cost, Sanders says – than buying land and rights of way and laying new track.
“It’s the only way it can be accomplished,” he said.
Specifically, the original Sanders plan made use of the KCS line than runs through Independence – past Crysler Stadium on 23rd Street, past Centerpoint Medical Center – and through the downtowns of Blue Springs, Grain Valley and Oak Grove. That line has only a handful of freight trains daily. The other initial line would be on the idle Rock Island line, now in the UP’s hands, that runs from near Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums into Raytown and Lee’s Summit.
In his speech, Sanders called transit “probably one of the biggest challenges we have in our community today” and said communities have to acknowledge a shift in the culture: Young people are notably less wedded to cars than previous generations have been, and they expect a vibrant city to have good public transit.
A Brookings Institute study, he said, puts Kansas City 94th in the country in the ability of people to use mass transit to get to work. Specifically, less than one worker in five can get to work by bus in less than 90 minutes.
“This is simply unacceptable for a major metropolitan area,” he said.
One the other hand, he said cities such as Portland have seen billions of dollars privately invested along streetcar lines and said that’s even beginning to happen in Kansas City, where track is just now being laid for a system opening in 2015.
County officials have said a commuter rail system and Kansas City’s streetcars would mesh well.
“Both projects work when they work together,” Sanders said.
Although they still prefer to have the commuter rail lines converge at Union Station, county officials have said Third and Grand works well too, as those two spots are the south and north ends of the first streetcar line. A commuter going from downtown Blue Springs to H&R Block in downtown Kansas City, they argue, wouldn’t see a lot of difference; it’s still a matter of taking commuter rail into the city and then hopping onto a streetcar for a few blocks.
The hangup in getting to Union Station is that the tracks there are full of freight trains, so cost and capacity pose challenges. A study this summer found that adding two lines just for commuter rail in that corridor would quadruple the cost of the overall project. Still, Sanders said, if the railroads can find a solution that gets commuter rail to Union Station, “we are all in favor of that, and we would make that happen.”
Sanders also counseled patience.
“Our community is not committed to getting transit done fast,” he said. “Our community is committed to getting transit done right.”