Kansas City, Mo. Civic leaders say Tuesday's vote on light rail could be the last chance to get federal funding needed to build the project.
But opponents label the plan too costly and say the planned rail routes which would start running in 2008 are in the wrong areas.
Voters are deciding on light rail for the third time, after rejecting rail plans in 1998 and 1999. The proposal calls for a new half-penny city sales tax to raise an estimated $725 million over 25 years, without accounting for inflation. That would pay 40 percent of the $793 million estimated cost to build the system, and would subsidize its operation, along with fare revenue.
The city is counting on the federal government for the rest. If it gets 60 percent of the construction cost about what the federal government has given other cities Kansas City could get $476 million.
Joe Perry, the light rail project manager for the city, says Congress is expected to take up light rail funding next year for the next four to six years, and there are already eight rail projects ready for funding. Just 12 projects were funded in the last round, Perry said.
Light rail uses smaller, cheaper trains than the above-ground trains and subways used in cities such as Chicago and New York. The Kansas City proposal calls for a 23.8-mile track to run mostly at street level.
The mostly north-south track would begin north of North Kansas City, continue through downtown, the Plaza shopping area and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, ending at 75th Street.
The track that's proposed now would not run to Kansas City International Airport, or to suburban Johnson County, Kan., which houses some of the region's big employers, such as telecom giant Sprint Corp. It also would not run to the growing eastern suburbs, although later plans call for tracks to the airport and Johnson County.
The project is at least as much about economic development as it is about solving transportation problems, said Leonard Graham, an engineer and co-chair of the city's light rail steering committee.
That's why the proposed route includes parallel tracks down Main Street and Troost, just 10 blocks apart. Much of Main Street is thriving, but Troost is blighted.
Graham said the Troost line also will connect the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus with the Rockhill campus, feed rail riders into the city's "Hospital Hill" area.
But light rail's price tag has drawn opponents. City councilman Paul Danaher called the sales tax "the largest tax increase in Kansas City's history."