Kansas City Transit: Light Rail Never Sleeps
Because voters in downtown Kansas City rejected a plan for a streetcar expansion, Kansas Citians might have hoped for a short reprieve from expensive rail transit projects. But it wasn’t to be. In November, Kansas City residents will be asked to vote for a ¼-cent and 1/8-cent tax increase to implement Clay Chastain’s $2.4 billion light rail plan.
In a strange twist, the ballot language will not mention a rail plan. That’s because city leadership has fought Chastain’s rail plan for years, even going to court to prevent it from making it on a ballot. Although the city has now lost that fight, because officials and Chastain could not agree on ballot language that included the rail plan, voters will be asked to decide on tax increases for “capital improvements” and “transportation.”
City leadership has described Chastain’s plan as unfeasible, and it does not take much math to figure out why. A 3/8-cent sales tax increase would net Kansas City approximately $30 million per year. However, just the initial part of the plan (a line from downtown to just south of the Plaza) would have $1.4 billion in upfront capital costs and $11 million in yearly operating costs. Assuming that the line can be built for $1.4 billion and that no major capital costs are incurred for 25 years (25 years is also the lifespan of the taxes), the plan has a $900 million funding shortfall.
Supporters of the plan hope that 60 percent or more of the necessary funding will come from the federal government and private donations. However, because the city leadership and MARC back a streetcar, not light rail, plan, the federal government might not give the project much support. Even if the federal government does provide funding, it would be unlikely to exceed 50 percent of total capital costs, not nearly enough to cover the shortfall. Bottom line, it might not be financially possible to implement the rail plan even if the proposed sales tax increases pass.
But imagine that everything breaks in the plan’s favor. Say the tax increase passes, the federal government provides 50 percent of the capital costs, and more than $200 million in private support materializes. After all that, Kansas City would have one light rail line from the Plaza to downtown. Hardly a transportation revolution worthy of $1.4 billion. But for some rail supporters, that does not matter. The initial rail line is a part of a larger dream; a dream that involves many more lines and billions more taxpayer dollars. Voters get to decide whether this plan, at least, is finally put to bed.