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Kansas City will vote on light-rail again

Friday, October 10, 2008 | 1:58 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY– For the ninth time in 11 years, light-rail is on the ballot in Kansas City.

But this time city leaders and many business owners say they support a smaller plan to commit more than $815 million for construction of a 14-mile starter route locals hope will help ease traffic and pollution.

Critics, however, say too many unanswered questions remain.

City leaders envision this starter line to be the tipping point for a major regional mass transit system, spurring business development along its path while making the Kansas City area more accessible and less dependent on personal vehicles.

The proposal asks voters to enact the three-eighths of a cent sales tax for 25 years beginning April 1, 2009. The estimated cost for light rail, which uses rail cars powered by overhead electric power, is between $815 and $835 million, but Kansas City is betting on federal funding to help pay as much as half the bill.

The proposal will be on the ballot in Kansas City and North Kansas City in November. The route would be from Interstate 29 and Vivion Road through downtown to the Country Club Plaza, then east to Bruce R. Watkins Drive and south to 63rd Street.

The plan is meant to be a substitute for one that voters approved in 2006, surprising city leaders who later said it was unworkable. Since 1997, voters had repeatedly shot down other light-rail proposals, most of them developed by advocate Clay Chastain.

Some supporters fear Kansas City could miss the train. A handful of other cities have built rail-transit systems in the past decade and dozens more are under construction.

"We're running out of time," said City Councilman Russ Johnson. "Other cities are passing us by."

City and business leaders say voters sent a clear message in 2006 they favor this system. And now, two years later, gas prices have continued to stay high, concerns about the environment are looming and ridership on city buses has increased by nearly 10 percent.

Some remain skeptical, saying the financially troubled city already has a backlog of infrastructure projects and an upcoming multibillion-dollar sewer project to address first. Citizens for Sensible Transit includes neighborhood groups and a few business owners who say too many unresolved details about the plan remain.

"We think this could go down at city hall as the most colossal mistake of the 21st century," said campaign coordinator Pat O'Neill said. "We see this as an adornment — not an improvement — that we could live and thrive without."

O'Neill said some business owners along the proposed starter line worry that construction will disrupt their establishments. Others fear that the ballot proposal only details the starting and ending points and leaves other information out.

The light-rail project is expected to be done in seven to eight years and will cost $14 million annually to maintain, with 25 percent coming from fares, said Dick Jarrold, senior engineer with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

Despite fears about the economy, the construction and development opportunities could create about 30,000 jobs, said Pat McLarney, campaign chairman of Citizens for Light Rail. McLarney said Denver, St. Louis and Minneapolis all have built light-rail systems, while people in Kansas City are still arguing over whether it would be successful.

Supporters also argue that about 40 percent of the sales tax is usually paid by visitors, leaving residents responsible for only a quarter of the funding.

Kansas City already has helped fund massive renovation projects downtown, including the Sprint Center and the nearby Power and Light District, and city leaders want to continue the area's development.

Supporters say light rail is just the beginning of a larger mass transit system throughout the region. Some regional leaders are already discussing commuter rail, express buses and bike paths. Other parts of a regional system could even be finished before the light rail.

Mayor Mark Funkhouser and the City Council favor the proposal. Other Kansas City civic and business groups that have opposed light rail in the past support the current plan.

A major victory for the plan came when the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce expressed its support — its first endorsement of a light rail proposal.

But chamber members still have some concerns, said spokeswoman Pam Whiting. They're pushing for development tools for new businesses along the lines and a plan that makes sure the project doesn't rely on city funds beyond the three-eighths of a cent sales tax.


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