Archive for Saturday, August 11, 2001

K.C. light rail has improbable future

August 11, 2001


— Just days after Kansas City voters demolished a light rail plan, some supporters are looking to resurrect it. They may have a tough time.

Mayor Kay Barnes said Friday that a light rail proposal could come back if it has grass-roots support. But she doesn't expect the city to initiate a project.

"It's unlikely that it would be generated from city hall," Barnes said. "I think the margin of defeat was such that we need to focus our efforts on looking at alternatives."

She pointed out that several other cities built light rail projects after multiple votes.

Light rail opponent Dennis O'Neill says city hall shouldn't even be thinking about light rail anymore.

"This has been on the ballot now four times. At some point, the arrogance of city hall has to come up against reality," said O'Neill, one of the founders of Citizens Against the Rail Plan.

Last Tuesday, that reality was a 60 percent vote against a half-cent sales tax to pay for the rail line. It was the fourth such defeat in four years.

The sales tax is needed before the city can apply for the federal funding it needs to build the line. Some rail supporters have proposed bringing the tax back for another vote, perhaps in November 2002.

Joe Perry, who led the light rail effort in the city's planning department, said, "The window for the federal funding is absolutely closing."

Perry didn't take a position on whether the tax should be resurrected. But he did say that it appears 60 to 80 percent of federal light rail money will be given to cities with local funding lined up. It might be 2008 or later before Kansas City would have another chance, he said.

Pat Gray is a political consultant who led pro-light-rail campaign. He thinks last Tuesday's electoral drubbing means only a much smaller, cheaper line could win voter approval.

The rejected line would have been a 24-mile, $793 million dollar system.

Maybe a "starter route" is in order, Gray said.

"Kansas City's very conservative. So with something like this, start with something more modest," he said. "Get your foot in the door, start something that would work, and go from there."

While voters pummeled the light rail sales tax city-wide, it lost 2-to-1 in the part of Kansas City that lies north of the Missouri River. That has led some light rail supporters to suggest cutting that part of the city out of the tax decision and the line.

Former city councilman Ken Bacchus and Leonard Graham, who served on the city's light rail steering committee, told The Kansas City Star they're interested in the idea of raising the sales tax only in the part of the city south of the river. The idea is just a proposal, and the city hasn't endorsed it. But such a move would remove from the voting part of the city that's had the most opposition.

O'Neill, who was a founding member of Citizens Against the Rail Plan, said the city should focus on transit plans that cut across city and state lines.

The defeated rail plan didn't run into suburban Johnson County, Kan., which has many of the Kansas City area's homeowners, and jobs.

O'Neill said he would fight the plan if it comes up again.

"City hall has become so arrogant," he said, "that whatever proposal they put forth needs to be countered by some organized resistance."

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