Jackson County has announced an initial agreement for the use of Union Pacific tracks for commuter rail service.

“For the first time in Jackson County history, commuter rail is possible, It’s not just lines on a map. ... It’s not a complete plan, but it’s possible,” County Executive Mike Sanders said Monday.

Sanders announced a deal with the UP for options to buy two lines – 17.7 miles of the old, unused Rock Island line from near the stadiums south through Raytown and into Lee’s Summit and the Pixley Spur, which runs 3.35 miles east from the Truman Depot, skirting around the Independence Square, and past Missouri 291.

The railroad also would let the county have a 1.7-mile line that runs from the Independence Power and Light plant on Truman Road northeast to the UP tracks that run past Lake City. Those two spurs could be connected with a couple of miles of new track, though that track probably would not run along Truman Road.

It could be some time before trains start rolling, but Sanders – who has pushed his commuter rail plan since the fall of 2009 – said the key now is banking the rights of way. The memorandum of understanding that Sanders unveiled calls on the county and railroad to come to a final agreement by the end of the year. When things get into place, he said, “you’re looking at commuter rail becoming a possibility in fairly short order.”

“Commuter rail doesn’t happen overnight,” Sanders said. “We’ve said that since the beginning.”

The cost would be $59.9 million, less than the initial estimated cost of $90 million to $120 million for the Rock Island line alone. Sanders said it’s possible the county and its partner cities in the area could get the federal government to pick up that cost, or those local entities could pay the UP over time. County officials also released a statement from Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II saying he would work with the state’s congressional delegation and the U.S. Department of Transportation to find federal money to help the county buy the rights of way.

Officials in the past have talked about going to the voters for a commuter rail sales tax, but Sanders said he does not anticipate doing that.

The Union Pacific also is allowing the county to begin looking at using the railroad’s busy main line through the area – the one that comes out of Kansas City, passes the Truman Depot and runs along Noland Road headed south to Lee’s Summit and then east to St. Louis – a move that Sanders said opens “virtually all of Eastern Jackson County” to commuter rail service eventually.

“We can do wondrous things for the economic development of Jackson County,” Independence Mayor Don Reimal said at Monday’s meeting of the County Legislature, when Sanders outlined the UP agreement.

“I think it’s a miracle,” said Kite Singleton, immediate past chair of the Transit Alliance. “My thought is miracles don’t happen by sitting around waiting for them.” He credited Sanders for being a bulldog in pursuing talks with railroads to get the plan going.

Sanders said the Union Pacific, with whom the county has negotiated for months, is looking for something good for the Kansas City area and not looking to make a lot of money on the deal.

“None of this would have been possible without the generosity of the Union Pacific Railroad and its CEO, Jack Koraleski,” Sanders said.

Long route

Sanders initially unveiled a metrowide plan more than four years ago, drawing on a particular advantage Kansas City enjoys – lots of unused or little-used track. That’s a system that Sanders says can be built for 10 to 15 percent of the cost of building a system from scratch, which can run $150 million a mile.

There have been changes along the way. Sanders plan at first called for six lines, like spokes on a wheel, running out from Union Station.

“Two of those are now possible,” Sanders said Monday, referring to the two routes to Eastern Jackson County.

Four of those six lines would run to Grandview, Kansas Speedway, the airport and Liberty, but for the last few years the main focus has been on the two to Eastern Jackson County – one on the Rock Island line through Raytown and Lee’s Summit and one on the Kansas City Southern line that runs right through Independence as well as the downtowns of Blue Springs, Grain Valley and Oak Grove.

But talks with the Kansas City Southern have gone nowhere, despite the public pleas by local mayors last spring for the KCS to get on board. Sanders says the deal the Union Pacific – including the a piece not previously in the mix – now moves his plans ahead.

“They’re allowing us to survey the very busy Sedalia sub,” Sanders said.

The “Sedalia sub,” or subdivision, is railroad language for the UP’s main line from Kansas City to Jefferson City. (It does run through Sedalia.) The railroad says 20 trains use it daily; that includes the four daily Amtrak trains. The use of those busy tracks would get a commuter rail line out of Independence close to the River Market, which is the goal. Kansas City’s first streetcar route opens next year, running from Third and Grand in the River Market south to Union Station.

That’s a win, officials say, because connecting at the River Market or Union Station works either way for commuters. County officials also say the streetcar system will need suburban commuters to be truly effective.

“These are complimentary projects,” Sanders said.

Rails and trails

County officials also stressed that the deal with the UP aids in the goal of a metrowide system of hiking and biking trails. Officials plan a roughly 100-foot right of way for commuter rail lines, leaving plenty of room for both trains and bike trails – separated by strong fences.

In particular, the Rock Island line is critical to tying into the Katy Trail, which crosses most of the state. An extension of that trail from Windsor, Mo., to Pleasant Hill is under construction. Eventually, Sanders says, he’d like to see the popular Little Blue Trace Trail in eastern Independence be extended to the Longview Lake area and connect with the Katy – meaning a bicyclist could ride from somewhere in the metro area all the way to St. Louis.