Who's on Board?
A recent study by the Brookings Institute ranked The Kansas City Metropolitan Area 90th out of 100 large metropolitan areas in the US for public transit accessibility to jobs. And while rapid transit bus systems like the MAX that runs a north-south route from downtown to the plaza offers speedier transit down KC's busiest corridor, perhaps this is not enough to get Kansas Citians to and from work.
The light rail debate has been hopping on and off election ballots and proposals have been echoing through the walls of City Hall for at least a decade. In 2006 a proposal passed the public vote, but was rejected by City Hall. The most recent one to go against the people in an election was in 2008, when a proposal made in 2007 by transit activist Clay Chastain for a $900 million, 14 mile starter line running from the northland across the Missouri River, through downtown and the plaza, terminating around 63rd. The addition of a Bruce Watkins extension through Linwood to the East gave the proposal the bump it would need from the community of heavy transit riders in that area. However, the 3/8th cent tax hike deterred voters on the November 4th election that year.
Since then Chastain has been restlessly attempting to promote other plans for light rail systems in Kansas City. The newest proposal is a 22 mile line running north and south from the Kansas City International (KCI) Airport up north of the river and terminating at the Plaza, adding additional streetcar lengths along Prospect, an area in need of more transit options. The newest plan would be a significantly more expensive project than the one voted down in 2008, running an expensive $2.4 billion by a 3/8th cent sales tax increase for 25 years.
Many cities of similarly sized metropolitan areas are considering light rail options, and some are beginning to build and implement them. The new favored style is a modern streetcar which operates well in urban activity centers for increased mobility. Cleveland, a metropolitan area of comparable population to KC, has had a rapid transit rail system in place since the 1920s, and they fared much better in the Brookings institute study, ranking 41st. Other cities of similar population size have had similar issues getting light rail legislation passed, but cities like Omaha and Charlotte both have developments underway.
While the development of the MAX rapid bus line has helped with carrying people to and from jobs, light rail is another civic issue that could potentially be of tremendous benefit to Kansas Citians, and not merely those needing quick transportation to and from work, but also those wishing to have an evening on the town without selling a vital organ for a parking spot down in the Power and Light district.
The plans have faced criticism by those desiring lower taxes and Chastain has his fair share of critics about town for his grandiose dreams of a better city, with Lyle Lanley-esque propositions like building a ferris wheel and gondola ride in Penn Valley Park. Some voters are also turned off by the lack of rail reach to suburban commuters. However, the proposals offered are not a one-stop solution to Kansas City's mass transit problems. As the city sprawls more to the west and east on both sides of the state line, better access will become crucial to getting Kansas Citians to jobs quickly.
For more information about Light Rail and transit in Kansas City, see these resources: