Fighting Back in the City of the Big Blunders


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© Jack Cashill
Published in Ingramsonline.com - June 2014

In the City of the Big Blunders, they tell me you are witless, and I believe them, for I have seen your pained officials sell streetcars to contented drivers—or try to. And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: no, I have seen real crooks and they at least know how to flim-flam the public into costly boondoggles.

To be fair, Kansas City is no Chicago (and I no Carl Sandburg). Our fair metropolis needs its own poet laureate, one capable of capturing the city’s stubbornly futile attempts to sell its citizens big, costly things they neither need nor want.

The city should have gotten the message last year when Jackson County residents rejected a 20-year sales tax to fund “translational” medical research. The 5-to-1 vote against that tax surely rates as the greatest tax-hike smack-down in memory, maybe in history.

To put that election in perspective, consider that Westboro Baptist’s late and unlamented Fred Phelps got twice that percentage of the vote when he ran in the 1992 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate.

To put the city’s futility in perspective, consider this February Tweet from Mayor Sly James: “I went in to the lions den and I came out unscathed and undeterred. Passionate folks speaking their mind.”

The “lions’ den” in James’s heroic narrative was a meeting at a mainstream Protestant church in the placid, good citizen, Brookside neighborhood south of the Country Club Plaza, to which James had repaired to sell a light-rail extension.

Overseeing the lions’ den that night was one Sherry DeJanes, a Brookside attorney of some 25 years’ experience and, I’m told, a Democrat, like the mayor. In sum, not quite the Town Hall/Tea Party terror of the liberal imagination.

DeJanes cited the reasons that she—and everyone else I know in this, my own neighborhood—opposed the light-rail extension. They include: an extra $500 million in cost raised through “unfair and unjust taxes;” a potential blow to neighborhood property values; a sales tax that will hurt local businesses; the nuisance factor of the line itself; and the absence of any assured protection for the popular hike and bike trail that pulls the neighborhood together. That trail, by the way, runs on the bed of an old trolley line. As history and archives reminds us, the trolleys “rapidly lost ridership as people moved to the suburbs, beyond the ends of the lines. Kansas City’s 25 streetcar lines dwindled to three, which finally ceased service in 1957.”

Were philosopher George Santay-ana not long dead, one would swear he was talking about Mayor James when he said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The mayor’s attempt to turn back the clock and tame the Brookside lions devolved into what David Johnson, a Kansas City Streetcar Authority board member, called a “crazy show.”

James reportedly added to the craziness. “The Mayor was combative, angry and made a really poor presentation,” one tipster observed in the blog, Tony’s Kansas City. “The main thing I came away with is that people in Brookside just don’t trust City Hall to keep their word about the streetcar plans after such a deceptive Downtown election.”

The City of the Big Blunders has its own language. Mayor James, for instance, remains, “undeterred,” which translates “giving the neighborhood a streetcar almost no one wants—provided, of course, the neighbors pay for it.”

A still bigger blunder on the drawing board is an extension of the streetcar line north of the river. This plan is so impressively wasteful it has even the Mid-America Regional Council questioning its wisdom. “It’s expensive,” conceded MARC’s Tom Gerend. “It’s a steep hill to climb.” In Blunder-talk, “expensive” means “outrageous.”

The light rail cheerleaders at The Kansas City Star admit that the plan “isn’t ideal.” Not “ideal,” in Blunder-talk, means that a combined sales and property tax for all of North Kansas City would get the tracks only part way into that city. “But,” adds The Star hopefully, “that doesn’t mean people are giving up on Northland streetcars.” Of course not, “people” don’t give up easily in the City of Big Blunders.

These same people are still pushing what may be the biggest blunder of them all, the new single-terminal KCI. In early May, the mayor’s airport terminal advisory group (ATAG) managed to shut out citizen opposition and officially recommend a single terminal. Still, as blogger and dissident ATAG member Kevin Koster notes, the “recommendation in no way guarantees that there will be a single terminal.”

Like DeJanes in Brookside, Koster gives testament to the power of the individual citizen in the age of social media. In March 2013, he launched a “Save KCI” blog that has proved stunningly effective.

As Koster notes, he created this site on a Saturday. The word spread, and by Monday afternoon he had given six media interviews. When the Kansas City Council voted to advance the single-terminal proposal a few weeks later, three council members dissented. By the end of April, Friends of KCI formed, and soon after James called Koster asking for an “adult discussion.” That discussion led to his ATAG appointment.

In the ensuing year, Koster and his allies have put any number of useful facts on the table: the airlines did not sign off in support; the TSA does not envision savings; no federal funds are available; there is no environmental compliance issue involved with the current terminals; new terminals do not attract flights; the new terminal would add enormous debt service; and the Chamber of Commerce definitely does not speak for the average business person.

As Koster foresees the future, the Aviation Department will double down on a single terminal, and the airlines will respond, “We’re happy for you but don’t want to pay for it and our customers don’t, either.” He sees no resolution until the City puts the issue to a vote in 2016, and the voters smack it down.

That’s how the leadership rolls in the City of the Big Blunders. 


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