A 17.7-mile piece of idle train tracks could become the beginning of commuter rail service for the area. Hikers and bikers are likely to see a more immediate benefit.
Local officials on Wednesday announced the $52 million purchase, from the Union Pacific Railroad, of the old Rock Island tracks from near Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums south and east through Raytown to Lee’s Summit.
“This is the spine that all other (commuter rail) lines can flow from,” Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders said.
Sanders had announced the intended purchase months ago, and Wednesday was the deadline for an agreement. “The business deal is essentially done,” Sanders said, adding that a final deal should be wrapped up within four weeks.
Officials made the announcement outside Arrowhead against a backdrop with an artist’s rendering of a commuter rail stop at the Sports Complex.
“Imagine being able to leave your seat at Arrowhead or Kauffman ... and be able to get to your home before many cars leave the parking lot,” Sanders said.
The county has brought in a partner, the Kansas City Area Transit Authority, which is splitting the acquisition cost with the county and which would operate commuter rail service in what officials outline as a coordinated system with buses and Kansas City’s downtown streetcar, which gets rolling early next year.
It could be six months to a year before federal approval comes through for a transfer of the old line to the ATA. Then work could start on the estimated $15 million it would take to turn the line into a biking-and-hiking trail. Sanders said that money is mostly already in hand, including a $10 million federal grant the county secured last year. The county has budgeted $1.5 million a year from its road and bridge fund.
A study by the University of Kansas a few years ago suggested 100,000 to 200,000 people year could use the trail, and Sanders and others have stressed the increased property values and economic activity along bike trails.
There’s a bigger plan, too. The state of Missouri is extending the Katy Trail north from Windsor to Pleasant Hill. The south end of the Rock Island Trail would be about 15 miles away, and Sanders said making a connection would be easy – creating a bike trail from Kansas City to St. Louis.
Jobs and growth
Sanders also wants the Rock Island for commuter rail service, a proposal he has pushed for the last six years, though there is still no timeline for when that could get started. The corridor carrying the Rock Island tracks is wide enough for both a trail and commuter rail tracks safely separated by a sturdy fence, officials said.
Sanders has consistently said commuter rail service can transform the way the entire Kansas City area grows and develops, and he says the area needs to capitalize on a critical asset – the area’s abundance of unused or seldom-used tracks. Putting those back in service costs a fraction of building from scratch, officials say.
“Jackson County, and this community, will not fall behind the curve,” Sanders said.
Although talk of catching a ride to a Royals game grabs attention, officials stress that the overall aim is to create a mass transit system that does a better job of getting people to and from work.
“We know that multimodal transportation can breathe new life into a city,” said Kansas City Mayor Sly James.
James added, “Cities of the 21st century are looking at developing new modes of transportation.”
Sanders and UP had initially included two segments of line in Independence in the sale of the Rock Island tracks. That’s the Pixley spur – from the Truman Depot east around the Square and east toward Missouri 291 – and some tracks near the Blue Valley Power Plant. But that fell through.
“That is not part of this conversation,” Sanders said Wednesday, but he said getting those tracks remains a priority.