Labor Advocate Online
Once Again, KC Transit In Crisis
by Bill Onasch
Clay Chastain likes to sit down at his dining room table with some maps, sucking grand transit-driven urban redevelopment schemes out of his thumb. A house remodeler by trade, he has no training as an urban planner, or in mass transit, engineering, or any other field usually involved in such projects. Strictly a loner, he steadfastly refuses to collaborate with transit specialists, transit workers, environmentalists, or any community organizations. After having six of these visions rejected by Kansas City voters he left town in a huff, the butt of the city’s longest running political joke.
Turns out the joke’s on us. Without resuming residence in the city that treated him so shabbily, he did come back long enough to petition to get his most grandiose pipe dream yet on the ballot in the recent election. To everyone’s shock it won. Nobody is laughing.
It’s estimated that the approved Chastain Plan would cost about a billion dollars. The spine of this creature consists of a light rail line that would start at the Swope Park Zoo, meander through the Plaza, Westport, Downtown, and Zona Rosa, eventually arriving at KCI Airport. (For those not familiar with KC geography this is a 30+-mile journey alternating between high density and very low density population areas.) Unlike nearly all existing light rail systems in other cities this one is mandated to have “new ground level power supply technology (no overhead wires).” There would also be an unspecified number of park-and-ride stations. The plan provides sixty battery powered minibuses to feed in to the “Heartland Light Rail System”
But that’s not all. Also included is an “aerial gondola tram system providing passenger service between Union Station, Liberty Memorial, and Penn Valley Park.” (These destinations are across the street from one another.) The park would be closed to vehicles and traffic “rerouted.” Where the present congestion on the vital Broadway artery would be shunted is also, alas, unspecified.
For seed money the adopted ballot measure directs, “extend the current three-eighths (3/8) cent transportation sales tax, due to expire on March 31, 2009, for 25 years, beginning April 1, 2009 and ending March 31, 2034, with said tax to be used solely to fund the construction, operation, maintenance, and beautification of the following transportation improvements under the auspices of the Kansas City, Missouri City Council.” Chastain realizes these fractions of a penny won’t come anywhere near providing a billion dollars but he assures us what’s needed will be provided by our generous government in Washington.
The chances of actually obtaining such federal funding is close to nil. Even if senators Bond and McCaskill twisted enough arms to get capital spending funds to build it the city would have no money to operate such a system. It is a crackpot scheme. But, no longer a joke, it’s now the law.
The current transit sales tax expropriated by Chastain provides the lion’s share of operating funds for the area’s bus system. The way it stands right now, thousands of transit dependent residents will soon have no transportation, thousands more bus patrons will give up convenience of the bus to go back to driving their cars everywhere, and hundreds of ATU transit workers will be out of a job. Not funny at all.
Various explanations have been offered for the shocking 53 percent voter approval: It wasn’t taken seriously so no significant group campaigned against it. Yuppies think light rail is a cool idea and didn’t think through the consequences of their vote. Voters didn’t take the time to read through the lengthy ballot measure to the end.
All these are undoubtedly true—but don’t get to the heart of the matter. Above all, even if they thought the measure had little chance of approval, why didn’t those charged with planning and operating transit in Kansas City use this opportunity to explain why they opposed it and why their plans are better?
The .375 percent transit sales tax hijacked by Chastain was approved in November, 2003. Here’s some comments we made in an article at the time,
“Kansas City voters, by a nearly two-to-one margin, have approved an additional3/8 cent sales tax to support ATA transit. Without this action Metro bus service would have collapsed in January. Like other transit workers and bus riders, I am celebrating—sort of.
“It’s a victory comparable to a condemned prisoner on death row getting a reprieve from the courts—but facing a new trial. We’re not out of danger yet, not by a long shot.
“The tax has a ‘sunset’ provision of only five years. That’s fair enough. If the transit crisis can’t be turned around in five years then the new sales tax won’t much matter.”
We reiterated some of the points from the KC Labor Party position paper, The Future of Kansas City Transit,
“●We can no longer doubt or ignore the scientific evidence that greenhouse gasses generated by fossil fuel burning contribute to global warming.
“●Fossil fuels are nonrenewable resources being consumed at an alarming rate. That’s one reason wars are being fought over oil. That’s why there is pressure to drill wells in pristine preserves such as in the Arctic.
“●As a nation with more vehicles than drivers we are polluting the air of every urban area and demanding more money and land for road construction, expansion, and repair.
“●We have killed more people in traffic accidents than we lost in combat in all of America’s wars.
“Expanded transit is the single best way to at least alleviate these serious problems. To the extent we can offer transit as a reasonable alternative to many trips now made by car we will reduce air pollution, fuel consumption and traffic accidents. Such alternatives would require establishing many new routes and longer and more frequent schedules.”
We further made the point that transit has to serve the whole sprawling metropolitan area and must be supported by the entire area—not just those shopping in its collapsing core of KCMO.
We ended that article on this note,
“We need to discuss, and at least begin to act on, these issues and more over the next five years. If we don’t get it together we’re not likely to get another reprieve for even our present inadequate system.”
Unfortunately, nothing substantial along these lines has been done over these past three years by the ATA, or MARC. The major project of the Regional Transit Alliance has been restoration of a vintage streetcar for display at Union Station. Little has been heard from the ATU or Sierra Club since the 2003 vote on the emergency sales tax.
This indifferent acceptance of a doomed status quo is the real heart of the crisis. It is a disgrace that the only bold new alternative to this inaction came from a crackpot. The fact that his scheme won a majority shows how impatient the public has become with the Establishment’s failure to respond.
MARC and the ATA are failed institutions, concerned only with shuffling grant money around to their friends. They have no genuine interest in promoting transit as part of a sustainable environment for our community. They need to be replaced as the mis-managers of our long neglected transit system.
Transit workers and environmentalists do have a stake in a greatly expanded transit system. Along with allies, such as community and student organizations, and the Labor Party, they are the only hope for launching a process that can find an acceptable way out of the current mess.
November 16, 2006
Bill Onasch, a retired ATA bus driver, is a member of ATU Local 1287, and the Kansas City Labor Party.
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