Friday, August 1, 2008

Starter Line A Non-Starter

We’ve lost count of the number of light rail “starter line” proposals that have emanated from the Kansas City Establishment–and have so far been rejected by the voters. The latest one deserves a thumbs down as well.

I say this as a retired transit worker, and committed pro-environmentalist, who strongly favors greatly expanded mass transit--including light rail, heavy rail, trolley bus and “modern” streetcar components.

But I begin with a totally different perspective from our local economic and political masters. Their sole interest is using tax payer dollars for light rail as a “development tool.” They have thrown a few more crumbs around on this one and have convinced those who speak in the name of the largely low wage or jobless African-American working class on the East Side to get on board the “development” train as well.

The area served by the latest starter line was once highly developed and included one of the best streetcar and trolley bus networks in the USA. Kansas City’s urban core was consciously undeveloped by postwar urban sprawl, fed by white flight to outlying areas that became car dependent. The first class electric transit service was scrapped.

Those residents remaining in the core have had to accept not only dwindling transit service, aimed to keep them in their geographical place, but failed schools, and infrastructure crumbling from decades of neglect, as well. Any development plan that ignores the totality of those challenges is an insult to those of us living in the core–above all those on the East Side.

The development that our town’s movers and shakers see is two-fold:

* Big bucks for those building the starter line.
* Using the line to drive more business to profit centers in downtown, the Hall family’s Crown Center, and the Nichols family’s Country Club Plaza.

The extension from previous starter line’s Plaza destination to 63rd & Prospect is a political bone thrown to the East Side. Most area residents will soon realize that the light rail will be no faster getting them to work downtown than buses–in fact, it will likely take longer.

My perspective is to use expanded transit to provide realistic alternatives for getting people out of their cars as much as possible. That is crucial to combating global warming and growing ozone problems. Building an expensive “starter” system in areas already relatively well served by bus lines does little to lure drivers to transit.

Granted, the urban core bus lines leave a lot to be desired. Some lines such as Troost, Prospect, and Independence Avenue can get dangerously overcrowded while a few are way under utilized. Much cheaper than light rail would be a restoration of clean, fast, quiet trolley buses--such as once served Independence Avenue, Prospect, Brooklyn, Woodland, and Indiana–adding at least Troost and Country Club (now known as the MAX) to the mix as well. Once an adequate power house is in place it’s just a matter of stringing and maintaining overhead wires. The same power would be available for any future light rail or streetcar lines.

One interesting part of the new Establishment proposal is running light rail down the Watkins–though only from 47th to 63rd. Actually a light rail right of way was provided for much of the Watkins when it was built. A position paper that I helped draft for ATU 1287 some fifteen years ago advocated running light rail from a park and ride on the north side of Bannister Mall, down the Watkins to Hospital Hill, where it would then go by street to downtown. That is a line that could attract a lot now driving to those destinations from Lee’s Summit, Raytown, south Kansas City, and perhaps even further out. Of course, since that original proposal, the Mall, and Wal-Mart’s Hypermart, have closed--so there is plenty of room for parking and plenty of need for saving that area from blight. A Northland connection from downtown to Vivion Road added on the other side would be a giant step forward for transportation–if not “development.”

Such proposals are not favored by the ruling rich, their political servants, or the grant driven bureaucrats at the ATA. It will take a mass movement, led by labor, environmental, and community organizations, to get Kansas City the transit we need and deserve.