Local officials doing their homework and hoping Congress does its.

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders and his team these days are watching one piece of legislation in Congress particularly closely – the transportation bill that is expected to include money the county wants to tap into to begin building a rail mass transit system in the Kansas City area.

The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress closely and well, last week quoted Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., as seeing great progress toward getting the bill passed. We’ve heard this before. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Missouri’s own Sen. Claire McCaskill, during a local visit last fall, suggested a bill was just around the corner. Congress has been passing stopgap measures for a couple of years while working on a longer-term bill.

Sanders, who has tirelessly advocated a rail system and says it would transform Kansas City, laments the fact that residents have paid their federal gas tax for decades – including about 3 cents a gallon set aside for mass transit – while the area has consistenly failed to bring home its share of those taxes to build a better system. Congress used to pass a big transportation bill every five years, resetting the rules, the funding formulas and the overall transporation priorities. But, as with much legislation, it’s harder these days to assemble broad, bipartisan support for transportation funding, especially with a fairly vocal contingent within Congress questioning whether the federal government should even be giving a dime for subways, light rail, Amtrak, etc.

Sanders argues that the next round of money could be the last significant influx of federal money for many years. He’s also quick to make a couple of other points. First, these aren’t earmarks. The county and Mid-America Regional Council are wrapping up plans on two initial rail lines – one from Kansas City to Oak Grove, with stops in Independence, Blue Springs and Grain Valley, and one from Lee’s Summit, up through Raytown and into Kansas City. Those plans could go to the feds within in weeks in hopes of eventually winning competitive grants.

After submitting their plans Sanders and Co. wait for Washington to ask for more homework or, perhaps, check off the right boxes and move toward funding. Sanders has been pushing an aggressive timetable, but he acknowledges that the more-homework option is possible. The county’s ace in the hole, officials hope, is that the use of existing tracks means their plan can be put into effect far more quickly and far more cheaply than building from scratch, as other cities have done. When LaHood was here last October, Sanders told him that with commuter rail “we can do more with your dollars than any other city in America.” LaHood agreed that’s a big plus for Kansas City.

The second point is that Washington wants the county to “show me the money” first. As important as federal funding is in getting this off the ground and probably in onging operations, local funding is paramount. Jackson County voters will likely get to decide that this fall. But that’s not the same as Washington saying, “You pay X, and we’ll kick in Y.” The federal government generally wants the local commitment first and then will go through its own process – on its own timeline – to decide which programs around the country are worthy.

Of course, Congress could kick the can past November, with each party deciding to take its chances on who controls the House, Senate and White House in January. That could open things up for Jackson County – or make Sanders’s job more complicated.