The Independence, Blue Springs and Grain Valley section of Eastern Jackson County has moved to the front of the line in plans for a metro transit system largely based on commuter rail service.

Planners on Tuesday released their latest proposals, which are expected to be made final and approved early in the new year.

A key piece is a commuter rail line that would take a rider from downtown Oak Grove to Third and Grand in the River Market area of Kansas City in 35 minutes and 15 seconds, with stops in Grain Valley, Blue Springs and Independence. Officials estimate 1,150 to 2,800 people would use it daily.

Third and Grand is also the northern end of the two-mile streetcar line, running south to Crown Center, that Kansas City expects to start in April 2015. Officials say the commuter rail and streetcar lines would go hand in glove, getting people to and from work.

The commuter rail line would mostly use Kansas City Southern tracks, though some new track in Kansas City would be needed. The construction cost is between $327 million and $434 million, and it would cost $10.7 million a year to run.

Jackson County taxpayers are likely to vote next August or November on a one-cent sales tax to get the system running, part of a broader effort to add such things as express buses and hiking-biking trails. For example, officials hope for express bus service on U.S. 40, perhaps Truman Road and, at least until commuter rail is rolling, more such service on Interstate 70.

Although County Executive Mike Sanders and his team have said they are confident of eventually winning federal funding for public transit, the one-cent tax – raising about $86 million a year – would be enough to get going.

“If we don’t start, if we don’t make the investment, then we’ll never be able to demonstrate success,” said Calvin Williford, Sanders’ chief of staff.

Officials say the first train could roll about two and a half years after a vote.

The federal funding formula doesn’t take into account a plan like Jackson County’s, which largely relies on existing lines, making it far cheaper per mile and faster to build than starting from scratch. Still, just this summer Washington greatly loosened those rules, making it easier for cities and counties to make their best case on their own terms – that is, once Congress approves a large round of funding, Much of that money would be from the 18-cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax. Sanders has said it’s reasonable to hope for a federal transportation bill in 2013.

The Interstate 70 corridor plans – commuter rail plus express buses – are a good example of that existing-rails strategy: The rail line is in use, the neighbors are used to trains passing by, and no environmental reviews are needed.

“The I-70 corridor is ready to go,” said Tom Gerend, assistant director of transportation of the Mid-America Regional Council.

It’s more complicated for a second line, one that would use the old Rock Island line from near the stadiums south and east to the Longview area. That line has been out of use for three decades, so the rails have to be checked and repaired as needed.

Neighbors might raise concerns. Some environmental review might be needed. And the county is still in talks with the Union Pacific, which owns the line, to proceed.

So for that corridor, officials propose express buses for now and using the Rock Island line for a hiking-biking trail that would hook into other trails in the area and would run to the Katy Trail, which is slowly being pushed northward from Windsor, Mo. That would still leave room for commuter rail in the future.

How long until commuter rail goes in on that line?

“We don’t know yet,” Gerend said.

Officials also are looking at commuter rail and other options from Kansas City to Grandview. Those three corridors, all in Jackson County, are part of what originally was conceived as a six-spoke system, with lines also to the airport, Kansas Speedway and Liberty/Kearney. That’s still the long-term hope, officials say.

Planners held a well-attended open house on Tuesday, answering questions and encouraging residents to offer their thoughts. They also encourage people to go to for more information and to log their comments. A final plan for the first two corridors – I-70 and Rock Island – goes to the MARC board for approval early in 2013.

“Then we’re in a position to compete for federal funds,” Gerend said.