The Kansas City area needs to seriously consider improved transit alternatives to be competitive in the future, a transit advocate says.
“Our metro regions are in competition with each other not only nationally. They are in competition with each other globally,” John Robert Smith, president and CEO of Reconnecting America, told a crowd of more than 60 at a Regional Transit Alliance luncheon on Tuesday.
He gave relatively high marks to the Kansas City area, where a proposed downtown streetcar line that would open in 2015 is being voted on this fall and where discussion of a commuter rail system has widened to include not just connections to the streetcar but also greater use of buses.
“And you have so much right here – so much promise. ... You’re doing the things right, but you need to stay with it,” Smith said.
The main proponent of the commuter rail system, which could go on the ballot in 2013 with the first two lines running in Eastern Jackson County, has been Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, who, like Smith, underlined the economic development and jobs that a commuter rail system would be expected to bring.
“This is not some ivory-tower discussion. This is reality,” Sanders said.
Smith, as mayor of Meridian, Miss., pushed for that city’s Union Station, spending $1.7 million that he said brought 100 times that amount of investment within a three-block radius and revitalized downtown. He also was chairman of the board for Amtrak.
On Tuesday, he advocated that he called transportation choice, meaning alternatives to long suburban commutes by car. That is a necessity in a changing world in which young people – the “creative class” that cities seek to nurture and hang onto – are demanding alternatives, especially in an era of gas approaching $4 a gallon. That is a theme Sanders and other rail advocates have stressed as well.
“You know,” Smith said, “the realities of the 21st century are very different than the realities of my generation or my father’s generation.”
Smith’s group last week released a report on 366 metro areas, looking at 33 measures of what makes a “complete community” – such as employment density, number of young people with college degrees, access to public transportation, and bike-and-pedestrian friendliness. Kansas City got B’s in three categories – living, moving and thriving – and a C for working, mostly because jobs are so spread out.
The report, “Are We There Yet?,” is at www.reconnectingamerica.org/