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Archive for Monday, August 5, 2002

Lawrence commuters show little interest in rail line

August 5, 2002

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If the future of a proposed commuter rail line between Topeka and downtown Kansas City depended on its Lawrence riders, the train might never leave the station.

A study to gauge the feasibility of such a rail line project is that just 32 passengers would board in Lawrence.

That low number is despite a finding that 71 percent of residents surveyed along the Topeka-Kansas City corridor were "very" or "somewhat" supportive of developing commuter rail service, and projections showing that enough people in cities between here and the Kansas City area would hop on to make the idea worth further investigation.

The study is being conducted by Mid-America Regional Council in consultation with transportation engineering firms across the country. It estimates commuter rail between Topeka and Kansas City would cost $112 million just to get rolling and close to $9 million annually for operation and maintenance. Fares collected along the route would cover about 29 percent of daily operating costs, the study predicted.

Now that preliminary numbers have been hashed out, the biggest questions are:

l Where would the money come from?

l Would the railroad companies be willing to negotiate for operating rights?

"Everything we're doing is a moot point if the railroads say no," said Darryl Fields, project manager for the study.

Transportation alternative

A commuter service would operate on existing rail lines and, unlike light rail, would run only during peak service times  morning and evening rush hour. Such a system typically attracts white-collar employees.

Proponents of the transportation alternative stress that it would provide easier and faster commutes, reduce highway congestion, improve air quality, enhance economic development and complement other transit initiatives.

But it doesn't appear Lawrence commuters are interested.

Bob Duver of Lawrence has been carpooling and vanpooling to his job at the federal building in downtown Kansas City, Mo., for the past 28 years. He said he probably wouldn't change his routine to include commuter rail because the government pays him $45 a month toward commuting costs and the vanpool is convenient.

"Basically, I get front-door service at the federal building," Duver said. "But if the train came near here, I would potentially be interested."

Residents and community officials in Lawrence and other cities along the three proposed routes have been included in public forums and surveys since the study began in July 2000.

Fields said ridership numbers for Lawrence would be higher if the proposed line stopped in Johnson County, where many Lawrence commuters work. That possibility may be considered in a future study, he said.

Good track record

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks that run south of the Kansas River in Lawrence would be the most appropriate for the Topeka-Kansas City commuter rail line because they're less busy than the Union Pacific tracks north of the river, Fields said.

Santa Fe has a well-established track record of working with communities that are serious about establishing commuter rail, said company spokesman Steve Forsberg.

"Typically, the sign of how serious they are is when they commit to spending the capital dollars needed to really make the service accessible," he said.

The railroad currently has commuter rail systems operating on its tracks in Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Seattle, Forsberg said.

Santa Fe wants to make sure it is compensated for any commuter operations it provides and that those operations don't degrade its freight service.

"You don't want to get into a Peter and Paul trade-off," Forsberg said.

No overnight deal

But negotiations with the railroads won't start anytime soon.

Communities will have to determine whether they're interested in supporting commuter rail, either through a bond issue, tax increase or a combination of both, Fields said.

And affected communities would have to work out jurisdictional issues and form an overarching transit authority to oversee the regional operation, which also would have lines running from Kansas City to Odessa, Mo., and Pleasant Hill, Mo.

The study team expects to present its findings this week to the transit committee  composed of transit providers and transportation planners throughout the Kansas City region, as well as other officials in affected communities along proposed corridors. Those communities, including Lawrence, then could set up forums to accept public comment, but no such gatherings are yet planned. The study team is expected to make its final recommendations to the MARC board in September, Fields said.

He said he didn't want people to get the impression that commuter rail would pop up overnight.

"If this happens within the next five years, it would be great," he said. "We're looking at five to 10 years to get this up and running."

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