Stacking the Deck for Regional Transit


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by Jack Cashill
Published in ingramsonline.com - January 2011

Kansas City's voters have spoken again and again on light-rail issues. So why, exactly, are the mass-transit disciples at it again?


n one of the nastiest days of early December, with the wind whipping out of the north and ice coating the sidewalks, I walked about 10 feet or so to my carport, clicked into my Ford Fusion, and put the butt warmer on double warm.

Then I adjusted the seat to its perfect inclination, stoked up the heat, made a quick hands-free call while backing out of my driveway and then drove a mindless five minutes from my Brookside home to my Westport office while Gene Autry serenaded me on my Sirius Christmas station with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”—all for about 30 cents’ worth of gas.

That same day, I received an e-mail news release from the Regional Transit Alliance, which promised “Compelling Data for Support of Regional Mass Transit.” Although there was no sign of any compelling data nor any link to the same, there was a prominent link to the proud centerpiece of the release, a nicely produced 10-minute video called “Looking Forward.”

The video alleged to capture the “unscripted remarks” of area residents, but as a video producer myself, I can assure you that “unscripted” footage is putty in the hands of an editor with an agenda. If “Looking Forward” does not win top honors in the Rapid Transit Category at this year’s Anti-Auto Propaganda Awards Show, I will demand a recount.

In one stretch of the video, for instance, the interviewer asks allegedly random citizens whether they supported the light-rail tax when it was on the ballot. The first six say “absolutely” or something very much like it.

The seventh citizen says he likes the idea of light rail, but adds that there are more compelling issues needing support. In that this guy is black, the producers suggest his is an understandable deviation from the general enthusiasm.

The eighth person, a white lady, denounces her fellow citizens for failing to support it, “We’re not ready for it,” she bitches. “We’re too hillbilly.” This sets up the ninth person, a presumed hillbilly, a white guy who likes his car.

A Martian watching this video would never have guessed that voters rejected light rail proposals something like eight times in the past 12 years. The one plan that the voters did narrowly approve—sneaked through by Clay Chastain in 2006—transit officials rejected as “unfeasible.” They apparently didn’t cotton to the more sensible parts of the Chastain proposal, namely the Ferris Wheel and the gondolas.

In 2001, the City of Kansas City put its muscle behind a 24-mile light-rail plan stretching from Vivion Road in the Northland to 75th Street in Waldo. To appease all constituencies at the table—as any transit plan must—the planned tracks hooked east once they reached the Country Club Plaza, then south on Prospect Avenue.

When the good-thought-thinking citizens in the Caucasian Corridor discovered that on cold December days they would have to take a bus to the Plaza and then transfer to the light-rail car to get Downtown, their fondness for things green faded like Kentucky bluegrass in a Kansas City July.

The boosters, however, never give up. Thus this latest agitprop from the Regional Transit Alliance. Although light rail holds an enshrined place in the hearts of the rapid-transit priesthood everywhere, here the larger faith fixes on a more amorphous, Downtown-centric rapid-transit system.

How amorphous? Consider the following sentence from the RTA release: “Many respondents stated there was a clear need for suburbanites who work in the Downtown central business corridor that would benefit from a reliable mass transit system.”

You read that right. In an utterly confusing verb-less clause, the RTA expresses a “clear need” not for reliable transit but for “suburbanites who work in the Downtown central business corridor.” The authors may have unwittingly established the “without which not” of successful regional transit—more Downtown workers. Right now, we don’t have enough of them, suburban or otherwise, to make any systematic plan work.

Stranger still, we are trying to get rid of the ones we have. In a bit of nonsense that would make the Khmer Rouge blush, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the de-peopling of Downtown in its expressed support for Kansas’ PEAK incentive program.

It stands for “Promoting Employment Across Kansas.” More realistically, as Kansas City’s mayor has stated, it might stand for “Poaching Employers Across Kansas City” because that is what exactly what the program does: lures Missouri employers across the state line to Kansas with lavish tax incentives. What makes the Chamber’s support of PEAK so impressively silly is that the Chamber is a proud corporate sponsor of the RTA.

How a regional transit system, especially a fixed one, would accommodate the ever-shifting sprawl of our ever-mutating metropolis, a sprawl urged on by the same civic leaders demanding light rail, the RTA does not quite have a handle on.

In truth, there is no rapid transit handle to have. In one unintentionally comic section of the video, the interviewer asks, “Where would you like mass transit to take you?” The RTA was sufficiently impressed by one answer to include it in the news release.

“Well, I live south of the Plaza,” said one young woman fully estranged from the tax consequences of her ambitions. “My family is in Lee’s Summit. I work in Blue Springs. So, I am kind of everywhere. So, if there was any kind of mass transit, I would take it.”

Much like this woman, just about all of us in Kansas City are “kind of everywhere.” There is one kind of vehicle that perfectly accommodates our movement, and it has for the past century. It is called “the car.”

I would bet my house against that young lady’s mailbox that on that second or third frigid day in December when she contemplates walking a few blocks to the bus stop, waiting in bone-chilling temperatures for the bus to arrive, switching buses in Downtown for that multi-stop trip to Blue Springs with a bus full of coughing strangers, she will think better of the idea and take her car—no matter how guilty the RTA and friends have made her feel.

By the way, just as I submit this, I read that the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded Jackson County and the Mid-America Regional Council $1.8 million printed for the occasion “to study options for a commuter transit network in Jackson County and an urban streetcar in Downtown Kansas City.”

Where do I sign up for my cut? I will at least give DOT an honest assessment.

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