Another Push for Rail Transit in Kansas City
Recently, Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders announced that the county had received a $10 million federal grant to buy just under $60 million of right-of-way from Union Pacific. The county wants that right-of- way for a $490-600 million commuter rail system. Jackson County officials are eager to move forward with the purchase, but they have not secured a funding source for the plan or resolved issues with freight rail companies over access to downtown Kansas City.
Jackson County and Union Pacific came to an understanding on purchasing the 15.5-mile Rock Island Corridor and two smaller spurs between Kansas City and Lee’s Summit for $59.9 million earlier this year. With the $10 million federal grant, the county residents will still need to fund a $50 million purchase.
But as the map above demonstrates, those purchases still leave the county well short of functioning commuter rail lines, without additional right-of-way or agreements with freight rail companies.
It is not simply a matter of purchasing track. The city has an ongoing dispute with freight companies over how commuter trains will arrive in downtown Kansas City. Regional planners are pushing for a connection with the streetcar at River Market, but Kansas City Southern Rail (KCSR) opposes this idea because it would jeopardize operations at Rock Creek Junction. KCSR suggests a connection at Union Station, but that could raise construction costs to $1.5 billion.
Using freight rail lines to get commuter rail into downtown Kansas City is no small problem, as the city is the country’s second largest freight rail hub, and rail lines downtown are already congested. Aside from providing a source of employment, having such a large freight rail hub has positive benefits for Kansas City’s manufacturing competitiveness. It would not be economically sound for the county to jeopardize freight efficiency to heavily subsidize the commutes of fewer than 4,000 residents.
While the county does not know how it will connect commuter rail to the city center, it is clear how it will pay for it: higher taxes. The county already has a plan to implement a county-wide 1 cent sales tax. But sales taxes are already very high in Kansas City. With the city still not giving up on a more expansive streetcar network, also to be funded with sales taxes, the increased tax burden may harm the city’s competitiveness. A yes vote is certainly not guaranteed.
The county does not yet have a plan for a functioning commuter rail system, and implementation depends on a tax that voters have not yet accepted. County officials should recall this before spending $50 million on right-of-way. They should also consider that Saint Louis is implementing Bus Rapid Transit, which can easily handle 4,000 commuters a day, for under $40 million. As for Kansas City residents, they should ask why city planners waste millions of dollars planning rail plan after rail plan without the approval, or even in the face of explicit disapproval, of voters.