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Examiner
  • Commuter rail plans delayed – no vote in 2013, key official says

  • The two railroads crucial to plans for commuter rail service in Eastern Jackson County and elsewhere in the metro area are at a standoff, says Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders.

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  • The two railroads crucial to plans for commuter rail service in Eastern Jackson County and elsewhere in the metro area are at a standoff, says Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders.
    That means the issue will not to go voters this year, as planned, he says. Sanders was aiming for the August ballot, and trains could have been rolling by the end of 2015.
    “The Kansas City Southern and the Union Pacific have reached an impasse,” Sanders said. The two railroads cannot agree on where the first two lines – both serving Eastern Jackson County – would end up in Kansas City.
    That’s a major setback for Sanders, who first rolled out plans for a six-line commuter rail system – connecting the airport, Village West, the northland and all the largest cities in Eastern Jackson County – in 2009. Since then, his team has worked to refine those plans and make their case to both federal officials and local leaders, an overwhelming number of whom have signed on. The plans relies mostly on existing track, making it far less expensive than the approach in other cities that built commuter rail, light rail or both from scratch.
    “This project is well engineered. It makes sense. It makes financial sense,” Sanders said, adding that polling shows deep support for it.
    But the two railroads, with whom the county has been in discussions for some time, are insisting on two opposite approaches, threatening to drop out if the other gets its way.
    “It’s out of our hands,” Sanders said.
    Standoff in ‘the trench’
    Some quick history helps explain the problem.
    The $1 billion Sanders plan outlined in 2009 was centered at Union Station. Six lines would meet there:
    • To Independence, Blue Springs, Grain Valley and Oak Grove on a lightly used KCS line. It’s the one that runs behind Crysler Stadium, past the Midwest Genealogy Center on Lee’s Summit Road, past Centerpoint Medical Center and through the downtowns of Blue Springs, Grain Valley and Oak Grove.
    • To Raytown and Lee’s Summit on the old Rock Island Line – tracks unused today but owned by the UP.
    • To south Kansas City and Grandview.
    • To western Wyandotte County, including Kansas Speedway, the soccer stadium and Village West.
    • To Kansas City International Airport.
    • To Liberty and Kearney.
    Although that would be handy in many ways – Blue Springs to Union Station to KCI in 35 minutes for $3.50, advocates have said – the prime reason for the system was to be getting people to and from work, a benefit to employers, workers and economic development generally. Sanders argues it would be transformational for the metro area in economic development, in giving commuters options, in attracting the young “creative class” that deems good public transit as a given in a thriving big city.
    Page 2 of 3 - But Union Station has been a hangup.
    Specifically, those busy tracks in “the trench” are a bone of contention. The trench includes that area you see from Interstate 70 at the Benton Curve east of downtown – triple tracks with lots of freight trains. The trench passes just south of 18th and Vine, and then it runs past Union Station. Kansas City is the busiest freight rail hub in the country, and several railroads use the trench with dozens of trains daily.
    Kansas City Southern is fine with putting commuter rail – metro passenger service on regular rail tracks, not specially built light rail – in the trench, with Union Station as the hub. It has long supported the Sanders plan.
    But the Union Pacific says that idea needs a lot of study, including expected rail traffic patterns over the next several decades. Sanders says he appreciates that.
    “We can’t ask a railroad to make a commercially nonviable decision,” he said.
    So the Sanders team had switched its plans. Go ahead and build the first two lines – the ones to Independence/Blue Springs and to Lee’s Summit – but bring them to Third Street and Grand Avenue in the River Market area instead.
    From a commuter standpoint, county officials say, there’s not much difference. The streetcar Kansas City is starting in 2015 will run from Third and Grand to Union Station, so the commuter headed from Independence to H&R Block in downtown Kansas City wouldn’t see all that much difference.
    “We’re happy to go to Third and Grand. We’re happy to go to Union Station,” Sanders said, acknowledging that eventually he wants to get into Union Station.
    As of this week, however, the KCS is saying if Union Station is out, then it’s out – killing that first, crucial Independence/Blue Springs line – Sanders said. And the UP is saying if planners insist on Union Station, then it won’t sell the rights to the Raytown-Lee’s Summit line.
    Blow to Eastern Jackson County
    The Independence, Blue Springs and Grain Valley section of Eastern Jackson County had moved to the front of the line in the planning by the Sanders team and the Mid-America Regional Council.
    Nearly final plans were released just after Thanksgiving. They even specified that the ride from downtown Oak Grove to Third and Grand would take 35 minutes and 15 seconds. There would be stops in Grain Valley and Blue Springs, plus two in Independence and some in Kansas City. Officials estimate 1,150 to 2,800 people would use it daily.
    That would have cost between $327 million and $434 million to build and $10.7 million a year to run. That’s where the public vote came in, a one-cent countywide sales tax that Sanders wanted to get approved this year. That would raise about $86 million a year, and Sanders said eventually the county would win federal money too.
    Page 3 of 3 - Besides commuter rail, the plan has evolved to include express buses and hiking-biking trails. That’s the intitial approach, at least at the moment, for the Lee’s Summit line on the old Rock Island Line, where it might take longer for environmental review and other work to get commuter rail up and running.
     
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