Overturning Light Rail a Good Decision for Kansas City
When citizens pass an initiative referendum, judges or elected officials should use the greatest of caution in exercising their authority to overturn that initiative. Nonetheless, the Kansas City Council’s decision to overturn the 2006 light-rail referendum is one of the rare examples where such an action was not only justified, but necessary for the residents of Kansas City. The tremendous financial problems the “Chastain” light-rail plan would have caused if it had gone forward necessitated the difficult decision to overturn the referendum, for the benefit of Kansas City.
Now the city must decide whether to proceed with a light-rail transit system at all. The choice is difficult, because while there is ample evidence that light rail would not be the best way for Kansas City to address its mass transit needs, the voters have expressed a desire for some type of light rail. Balancing the competing goals and interests involved will be a difficult job for elected officials as this issue continues to be debated.
In a study released by the Show-Me Institute on January 23, author Randal O’Toole, an international expert on planning and transportation issues, stated, “The factor that seems to have the greatest influence on transit commuting is not the mode of transit or the region’s population density, but the concentration of jobs in a central transit hub. … Kansas City has only about 50,000 jobs in its central business district, less than 7 percent of the jobs in the entire metropolitan area. This suggests that … it is a poor candidate for rail transit.” O’Toole’s study discusses many other problems, financial and otherwise, with light rail in Kansas City. The entire document is available at showmeinstitute.org.
The dramatic weaknesses of the Chastain plan were obvious, even to many supporters of light rail. The estimated costs were too low, the assumed federal and state funding was unlikely, and the plan itself was far too grandiose. The worst part of the plan’s design, though, was its attempt to get light rail on the cheap by taking tax money from the bus system rather than by increasing taxes. There may be many legitimate criticisms of the MetroLink light-rail system in Saint Louis, but at least the voters there approved a tax increase to pay for it, rather than attempting to cannibalize the bus system that is so critical in meeting the needs of the very people who depend on mass transit the most.
With the Chastain light-rail plan overturned, Kansas City must now decide how to address its mass transit needs. Although less extravagant light-rail plans are being considered, O’Toole’s study suggests Kansas City should also give strong consideration to other alternatives, such as the expansion of KCATA’s successful bus–rapid transit lines. The Troost bus–rapid transit line, for instance, has maintained strong ridership at very reasonable costs. Several more such lines could improve transit in Kansas City at a much lower cost than light rail would require.
Kansas City should also look at the examples of Las Vegas and Denver, which have contracted out many of their transit operations to private companies. Both cities have significantly expanded their bus systems and held costs down by allowing private contractors to bid on the rights to operate bus routes. Competitive contracting is one way for Kansas City to address its transit needs in a financially responsible manner.
All of these options should be analyzed and debated as Kansas City moves forward with its long-term transit planning. So far in this process, members of the Kansas City Council have made a tough but correct decision. They certainly have many more ahead.
David C. Stokes is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri-based think tank.