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Examiner
  • On the fast track

  • Plans for the Kansas City Regional Rapid Rail system are gaining speed – and it looks as if Eastern Jackson County would be the first part of the metro area to significantly benefit from it.

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  • Plans for the Kansas City Regional Rapid Rail system are gaining speed – and it looks as if Eastern Jackson County would be the first part of the metro area to significantly benefit from it.
    Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, who has pushed hard for the plan for two years, says he is more optimistic than ever that federal money to study, plan and build the system will keep coming. He says it would transform the metro area like nothing since the building of the interstate highway system half a century ago and is vital for Kansas City to compete with other cities around the country and around the world.
    “If we want to compete, if we want to grow, we have to make a generational investment,” Sanders says.
    When Sanders rolled out the $1.1 billion rapid rail system two years ago, a main selling point was cost. By taking advantage of the area’s abundance of unused and underused rail lines, there is no need for the costly, time-consuming environmental permiting and right-of-way fights needed to build new lines. Putting a mile of track back into use costs a fraction of what it costs to build a mile of track.
    Still, Sanders says six or 12 months ago he wasn’t as confident as he is now that federal funding would come through. But in recent months Washington has approved grants to look more closely at three of the six lines that would be built – including the line to Independence, Blue Springs and Grain Valley and the line through Lee’s Summit – a process that should be done next spring. A 2010 report on the plan describes building those two lines first as the “starter” network for the eventual six-spoke system.
    Federal money is driving the study process now, but advocates have said local taxpayers eventually will have to be asked to pitch in to build and run the system.
    “At some point, you’ve got to have local dollars,” Sanders said recently.
    Officials get on board
    The proposed line from Oak Grove to Union Station – running through Grain Valley, Blue Springs and Independence – illustrates the opportunities and challenges officials are taking up. The route is attractive in part because 80 percent of the line already exists – a line the Kansas City Southern railroad uses for just two to four trains daily. It’s also at the front of the line because officials give high priority to getting some traffic off crowded Interstate 70.
    Kansas City Southern has long favored the Rapid Rail plan, said Warren K. Erdman, the company’s executive vice president of administration and corporate affairs. “For Kansas City, it uniquely makes sense,” he said.
    Blue Springs Mayor Carson Ross is among the many area mayors Sanders has lined up to support the plan because, as Ross said last week, “it’s also going to spur economic development in my city.” Advocates say the experience of other cities is that development is powerfully drawn to train stops since they are essentially fixed in one place for many, many years.
    Page 2 of 4 - Officials conducting the current “alternatives analysis” are trying to read the public’s preference in regard to two major options in Independence.
    Let’s say a rider gets on the train for the 41-minute ride from Blue Springs to Union Station (29 minutes if it’s an express). That Rapid Rail train – a diesel-powered unit that looks a lot like a light rail car you see in other cities but built for regular “heavy” rail tracks – would glide past the north edge of Lake Tapawingo and then pass under I-70 just east of the Little Blue River.
    That line then passes around Centerpoint Medical Center, an anchor of the southeast Independence commercial district. The stop there could someday feed into a street-car system linking such places as Children’s Mercy East, Bass Pro Shops and the Independence Events Center, City Manager Robert Heacock has said. (Kansas City is already working on its own downtown streetcar system, which Rapid Rail would feed from Union Station, a development that also encourages advocates.)
    Keep going west, and officials have a choice to make. The train rolls under Noland Road a few blocks north of Truman High School. Now there are two options, and officials will select one in the coming months:
     • One idea is to turn south and run for several blocks next to the Union Pacific tracks along Noland to I-70, then turn west and run to Sterling Avenue, south and west pass Riss Lake and west to Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums. There it links up with the Lee’s Summit line – using the old Rock Island line – and goes slightly west and hooks up with a third line, the one coming up from Grandview.
    From there, a common line would run up to Truman Road at about Topping, then east on Truman to Cherry on the edge of downtown Kansas City, then south to Union Station. That’s all new line to be built, but it gets the Rapid Rail trains off the busy freight lines in Kansas City itself, and, planners say, it promotes development in a part of Kansas City that needs it.
    • The other option for that eastbound train passing under Noland is to keep going on the Kansas City Southern line until it meets 23rd Street at Crysler Stadium. At this point, a new line would go down 23rd Street into Kansas City and hook into that common line that runs to Truman and then Union Station. Heacock says he likes the 23rd Street idea because it would better serve western Independence.
    Plans also call for using the Union Pacific spur line running east from the Truman Depot. That line runs not far from the Square – within a couple of blocks of the city’s bus transit center – and east toward the Little Blue River valley, where the city expects significant development in the future.
    Page 3 of 4 - Some raise questions
    “Virtually everyone we’ve presented this plan to has supported it,” Sanders said last week. He said he’s made presentations to at least 5,000 people – chambers of commerce, elected officials, other leaders – over the last two years and said polling shows support for the idea.
    Still, Janet Rogers of Blue Springs, a member of the Transit Action Network, says she has concerns. Her group isn’t convinced everything in the Sanders plan adds up when it comes to issues such as route times and projected ridership.
    “We think we’ve got legitimate concerns,” she said. “It’s not that we’re not in favor of rail.”
    The Federal Transit Administration, she said, will want concrete answers on ridership, expected economic development and other issues before approving construction funds.
    There’s also a concern that the Rapid Rail cars – heavier than the light rails that run along streets in many cities – will have to go slower once they get to that Truman Road part of the line. “That’s going to have an impact on ridership,” she said.
    Frank L. Weatherford, a principal at TranSystems, the Kansas City company that designed Rapid Rail, said other cities have solved that problem, often by coming up with some sort of barrier between rail cars and regular street traffic.
    Rogers has pushed the cause of public transit for years – often years of metrowide study but little follow-through, as with past commuter rail ideas – and hopes this time Sanders and other political leaders will push forward with substantial upgrades, even if the studies under way should come back and say now isn’t the time for rail.
    Getting around town
    “You rely on someone that uses mass transit every day,” Sanders at a recent meeting in Independence.
    Advocates say this system isn’t just something to ride to a Chiefs game, race day at Kansas Speedway or the airport. It’s about getting people to work, and officials are pressing the point that employees of hospitals, nursing homes and other service industries rely heavily on public transit. The system is designed to link major employment centers as well as places to shop and play.
    Advocates say it would be mean fewer cars on the interstates, better commute times, better metrowide planning and land use, and better human health because of reduced pollution. It would entirely change the current discussion about someday widening I-70 to eight lanes through Independence, said Tom Gerend, assistant director of transportation for the Mid-America Regional Council.
    Sanders says the issues are even bigger than that.
    “Think about the way this changes the way this city thinks, this city moves, this city operates in the years ahead,” he says. Transportation is a defining issue for major cities, he said, and “green” transit is crucial to attract and hang on to what he calls “young intellectual capital” – the bright young people who will build the next Hallmark or H&R Block in Kansas City.
    Page 4 of 4 - “For them, it is a major issue,” he said.
    Ultimately, advocates argue, it’s about the area’s quality of life.
    “That’s transformational for a city like us,” Sanders said.

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