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It’s Not About Transit
Light Rail Debate Is About Development—Of Profits

by Bill Onasch 

Opinion polls consistently show increased interest in expanding public transit. This is quite a turnaround for our town. 

Although Kansas City once had one of the finest transit systems in the Midwest, decades of conscious social, economic, and political policies devastated public transportation. The postwar national trend of Urban Sprawl, promoting car dependency, absolutely ran amok here. While we rank 26th in population of metropolitan areas we’re 66th in population density. We’ve got more miles of freeways per person than any other major city. 

As car dependency became supreme public transit was stigmatized as being for losers who, for some reason or another, didn’t have access to a car. More and more transit was treated as a charity for the old, the disabled, the poor. 

But those attitudes are beginning to change as the festering problems created by Sprawl start affecting virtually everyone. Folks in the Kansas City metro area are not that much different from other major cities where new transit projects have been launched or are being considered. The arguments for transit expansion can be compelling to the average person. Most people would like to see: 

§                     cleaner air

§                     less time wasted and less road rage in traffic jams

§                     reduced fuel consumption giving financial relief while conserving our limited fossil fuels

§                     fewer deaths, injuries, and property damage in wrecks 

The only effective way of meeting those objectives is by replacing complete reliance on our cars for every journey with substantial usage of public transportation for trips to work, school, and sporting events. 

This worthy sentiment is what prompted Question 2, a proposal for a ½ cent sales tax over the next 25 years dedicated to a new light rail system, to be voted on August 7. 

Question 2 has stimulated a lot of controversy and media interest. But what has really grabbed my attention about the great light rail debate is that almost nobody is talking about how the 800-million dollar plan would affect transit. 

The Kansas City Star editorial page [though not its business columnists] has been producing impressive predictions of development and jobs that will be produced if Question 2 is approved. 

Other boosters, sounding like characters straight out of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit, have been declaring that if we don’t get light rail like Denver and Dallas did we will forever be condemned to Cow Town status. 

Former Mayor Cleaver, who once dismissed the Downtown-Plaza segment of the proposed plan as “touristy froo-froo,” has signed on since a Troost component was added to kick-start lethargic development in that corridor. 

Even traditional transit advocates, such as the Sierra Club, and the ATU, who see Question 2 as a last chance to do something to revive transit, are strangely silent about transit issues. Quietly, they defer to the movers and shakers calling the shots while they try to mobilize their troops on election day. (When transit advocate Rick Zbinden was given a chance to submit a column to the Star it was part of a point/counterpoint exchange entitled For Economic Reasons Light Rail Deserves a [yes/no].) 

Part of the preoccupation of light rail supporters with development is due to Federal Transit Administration guidelines for awarding matching funds. About sixty percent of the 800-million is projected coming from Washington. Whereas in the past the FTA sensibly looked at expected new ridership as the main factor in approving grants now there are more complex rules giving much more weight to nontransit issues such as economic development. 

The most vocal opponents of Question 2 are also concerned with economic impact—on them. 

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has always been suspicious of any transit talk. Urban Sprawl has been very, very good to them and they want to stick with the date that brought them to the party. There’s no question they’d rather see 800-million sunk into good old-fashioned concrete roads. “The Chamber urges the mayor, council and manager to direct their attention to fixing pot holes, improving city streets, bridges and sidewalks, and correcting a crisis situation in the city’s infrastructure, rather than burden taxpayers with new obligations for speculative projects.” 

The Chamber hired only one consultant to examine Question 2—Tom Rubin.  Rubin is a self-described “hired gun” who is actually part of the cadre that runs various Libertarian front groups such as the Reason Foundation. The Libertarians top transit gun, Wendell Cox, is coming to town for the final days of the campaign. These well-heeled disciples of Ayn Rand provide right-wing newspaper columnists who are too lazy to do their own research with much of the commentary on transit issues appearing in our great metropolitan newspapers across the land. They not only have opposed light rail everywhere it has been proposed; they also are aggressive advocates for privatization of mass transit. The Star’s transit expert, E Thomas McClanahan, frequently serves warmed over helpings from the Libertarian buffet. 

There are also a lot of landlords, fast food franchisers and small-box merchants in the inner city who fear better connected developers will muscle them out of their turf through light rail development schemes utilizing TIFs and Eminent Domain. 

Only one group has seriously analyzed Question 2 from a working class, transit perspective—the Kansas City Labor Party. Here are some excerpts from their statement: 

We have done much soul-searching over this light rail proposal. 

The Kansas City Area Labor Party has always been an active advocate for expanded transit. We’ve organized community meetings about the transit crisis on both sides of the state line; mobilized public opposition to past service cuts; and presented position papers on transit issues. We agree with our allies in the labor and environmental movements that light rail could be an important component of a needed transit revival in the Kansas City area. 

However, we have too many reservations about Question 2 to make another exception to our sales tax policy. These include: 

Matching Funds. The sales tax is not contingent upon Federal approval of matching funds needed to build light rail. If Washington rejects the plan now being sold to voters the ½ cent tax would still be collected for twenty-five years. The money would be spent studying and preparing for future, and possibly quite different, light rail projects without need for any further voter consultation. 

Routing. We believe that turning to expensive new light rail, as opposed to expanding bus service, can only be justified if it will attract substantial numbers of new riders. The north section of the so-called “community” plan seems to have some potential for luring commuters out of their cars. But the south section duplicates bus service on well-established Metro lines. … The Troost segment, reportedly made as a sop to Cleaver and East Side politicians, stops at 55th Street—too far north to be of much value. This plan does not make good transit sense. It is the product of political horse trading, not genuine community input. 

Transit Labor. Most supporters of Question 2—including the leadership of ATU Local 1287—assume that, since the ATA will be getting the light rail funding, the work will be done by the unionized Metro. But there is no actual agreement in place for this to happen. And, given the ATA’s history of trying to contract out work to private, multinational companies paying substandard wages, we are not so trusting of them to do the right thing. 

The Labor Party concluded that they could not in good conscience join their allies in the union and environmental movement supporting Question 2. 

We need more discussion leading to an achievable plan of transit expansion. Light rail can be a part of that plan. 

For about the same amount of money called for in Question 2, a line running from Truman Corners to Downtown along 71 Highway/Watkins could have been substituted for the current Plaza/Troost proposal. The Truman Corners line would have great potential for luring new riders from outlying areas, currently fighting their way through the Grandview Triangle and beyond, as well as offering service to East Side residents going to work Downtown or on Hospital Hill. 

Commuter heavy rail, operated by railroads over existing tracks, could bring tens of thousands of commuters from Johnson County, and eastern Jackson County, into the Union Station area for no more capital investment than the rolling stock and construction of stations. 

The linchpin of any successful transit system is the bus. We need to do a lot of things with our buses. We need more routes and more frequent service and 24x7 operation. We also need to look for ways to start phasing out diesel buses which are highly polluting. 

From 1937-58 Kansas City had an impressive network of electric trolley buses operating on Independence Avenue, Prospect, Indiana, and Brooklyn-Woodland. On Prospect dual sets of wires allowed rush-hour expresses to pass up the locals. Those buses were faster, cleaner, and quieter than any bus with an internal combustion engine. They combined the superior electric propulsion of streetcars (light rail) with the maneuverability of a bus. The Kansas City trolley buses were scrapped a year after the last streetcars. 

But trolley buses continue to thrive not only in Europe and South Africa but also in North American cities that have serious transit plans—San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, to name just a few. It’s time Kansas City once more looked at electrifying high volume bus lines such as Prospect, Troost, and County Club. Electric bus lines would be far cheaper to build and maintain than light rail. 

For less heavily used routes we should be looking at the recently introduced hybrid diesel/electric and natural gas powered buses. 

Another cost-effective option available would be the creation of bus only lanes on all those miles of freeways the tax payers have already built. It wouldn’t take too long to remove the stigma of bus riding once the drivers of  single occupant cars start watching buses flying by them during the rush hour crawl to Sprawl. 

Why aren’t we discussing these transit issues? The reason is simple: there’s no big profits to be made from mass transit. The banks, land owners, construction companies, have little to gain from promoting such a public service. In fact they think they have a lot to lose if we reversed Sprawl and started planning more livable cities. The politicians take their marching orders from the moneyed interests and, too often, union and environmental leaders are reluctant to take them head on as well. 

But the issues of Sprawl, and the need for a transit revival, will intrude into the business as usual world. That’s because they are of vital interest to the great majority. These are working class issues that only working class organizations and their environmental and community allies can be trusted to advance. 

In the meantime, all this sham debate about light rail is not about transit. 

Bill Onasch is a Metro bus driver and a member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287. He also serves as chair of the Kansas City Local Organizing Committee of the Labor Party and is webmaster of 

For more about the general problems of Urban Sprawl see the Sierra Club Challenge to Sprawl page. 

For a concise overview of Kansas City’s transit crisis see the Labor Party position paper, The Future of Kansas City Transit 

Posted July 27, 2001