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No Winners in Light Rail Vote
After the Fiasco What’s Next for Kansas City Transit?

By Bill Onasch 

For the third time in four years Kansas City voters rejected a sales tax to finance light rail. Previous attempts had been led by political gadfly Clay Chastain and were generally dismissed as not serious proposals. But the so-called “Community Plan” was rejected by an even greater margin than Chastain’s initial effort, just barely garnering forty percent of the vote.

The fact of the matter is that the Community Plan had no real input from the community and was no more serious a proposal, from a transit point of view, than those sucked out of Chastain’s thumb. As I have maintained in preelection articles, the fight over light rail was not really about transit. It was an intramural squabble about rival visions of development among competing factions of the local Establishment.

One side, including the Hall family, hotel and restaurant interests, and others tied to tourism and yuppie attractions, wanted to use light rail as a development scheme to promote commerce between City Market and the Plaza. To get needed broader support for this narrow corporate welfare they offered sops to others that lacked enthusiasm.

A spur to Vivion & Oak was tacked on to appease the Northland. A still-born Troost line, dead-ending at 55th Street, was offered to the East Side. In a deal with archrivals Nutter and Kemper—which the two bankers later reneged on—they shifted the main line from Broadway to Main. Labor leaders and environmentalists weren’t given much but were told that this was the city’s last chance for a transit revival so they better get on board. Time honored cronyism and log rolling was their concept of community participation.

But other business interests dominating the Chambers of Commerce were not to be placated by a few crumbs from the Hall’s table. They are staunchly pro-Urban Sprawl, mortal enemies of subversive notions like renewing the Urban Core and reviving mass transit. They want such heretical challenges to the status quo crushed in the egg.

North of the river the Chamberites distributed lawn signs that read “Vote Northland, Vote No!” This was a thinly veiled appeal to segregationist traditions that once offered refugees from block busting in the inner city a safe haven beyond the mighty Missouri River.

In the more racially balanced neighborhoods in the Westport/Roanoke/Hyde Park districts they mailed official looking phony notices to home owners telling them their property had been condemned by the City—a twisted reference to development rules adjacent planned light rail stations. They helped publicize noisy protests by landlords and shop keepers posing as grass roots activists. (Strangely enough though these areas painted as hot beds of opposition were the only ones to turn out majorities for light rail.)

To give themselves intellectual cover the opponents also called in out-of-town consultants from Libertarian think tanks and advocacy groups, parading Wendell Cox around to every radio show in town. They provided such stunning statistics as the assertion that light rail would only average 20 mph. Of course they failed to point out that this average includes passenger stops and end-of-line layovers. Using the same measurement cars would average perhaps as high as 22mph over the same route.

Between the Star’s daily boosterism in support and the mean-spirited dishonesty of the opponents it was a pretty dismal campaign which won little respect for either side.

The Regional Transit Alliance, which tried to usurp the claim of representing the community, proved to be a flop. From day one the Suits from corporate suites and government offices established a tight, top-down command structure. Transit labor was specifically excluded from decision-making roles. The only pretense at getting community input were poorly publicized public neighborhood meetings where Suits marketed their plan and jotted down notes on audience reaction. They styled themselves as “practical,” results-driven leaders building consensus. In reality the only consensus they built was among their self-selected Board which frowned on any questions.

Kansas City’s only membership-based environmental group, the Sierra Club, also needs to do some sober reassessment. They were totally uncritical supporters of a campaign that didn’t even mention environmental issues. They too tried to be practical. But now there’s no “starter system,” light rail has been further discredited as impractical, and there wasn’t even any basic education done to prepare for the future.

The central labor and Building Trades councils were almost silent endorsers of Question 2. They donated money to the Movers and Shakers and that was about it. Their main motivation for support was the hope that construction of light rail would provide some jobs.

So where do proponents of transit revival go from here? We go forward to the beginning. We recognize that all past schemes for light rail have been a diversion from transit needs. We start to frame the real issues that need to be discussed. We start to put together a genuine transit advocacy coalition built on a foundation of labor, environmental, and neighborhood organizations.

We will be approaching transit advocates with a proposal to call a conference some time this Fall to break away from developer’s schemes and to launch a new movement for transit revival in Kansas City.


August 11, 2001