Thursday, April 19, 2012

SKC, Grandview Rapid Rail Line Study Funded

By Seann McAnally
A look at Grandview's history makes one fact clear - the railroad brought the city to life. Now, county officials want to continue that tradition with a passenger rail line to Grandview. It's part of a larger Regional Rapid Rail plan developed by Jackson County and TranSystems that is winning converts across the Metro - including Grandview Mayor Steve Dennis. 

County Executive Mike Sanders took his message to Grandview City Hall to convince the Board of Aldermen that his rapid rail plan is going places.

Funding to the tune of some $652,000 has come down from the Federal Highway Administration to study the so-called "Grandview Line," a passenger rail line that would run from Union Station south through the Bannister Mall area and down the 71 Higway corridor to Belton.

"We're in the preliminary stages of beginning that study," said Dan Ferguson, public information officer for the county. Such studies are a necessary first step to securing further federal funds to actually build the line. 

A previous study had some worried that the southland would be left out of the plan. In Dec. 2010 the Federal Transit Administration awarded some $1.8 million to study the Rock Island Line, which would run to Lee's Summit and Pleasant Hill, and the I-70 Line, which would run through Independence to Blue Springs. That study is nearing completion. 

"We always intended to study the south line," Ferguson said, "but there was only so much money available." 

Sanders said it's worth noting those were both competitive grants, and that, ultimately, they were paid for with the federal gasoline tax. 

"For years we've been paying in," Sanders said, "but we've watched that money go to Denver, to St. Louis...in the past, when it came time for federal funding, the Kansas City area has missed the boat."

But Kansas City has a secret weapon in its arsenal to compete for future funds to build the line, he said. 

"Dollars are limited, and the competition is fierce," Sanders said. "Federal officials want the most bang for the buck. They want to put that money where it makes the most economic sense. Our plan uses existing, under-utilized rail corridors. That means we save time, money, we don't have to do environmental impact studies - it's by far the most realistic and affordable plan in the nation right now." 

Sanders said he's heard feedback that Kansas Citians are "in love with their cars" and that few would use rapid transit. He said that's not been the case in similar cities. 

"We're similar to Denver and St. Louis, both size-wise and demographically," Sanders said. "In St. Louis, they said the same thing - folks will never ride it. But they did. In both cities, ridership exceeded expectations. It's tough to even get a seat." 

Rapid transit is not just about getting people to jobs, Sanders said. It's about economic development. 

"In Denver, 40 new businesses have headquartered there since their rapid rail plan went into effect," Sanders said. "In speaking to Denver officials, they told me those businesses said, ‘yes, we'll come, but we want to be at a rail stop.' In St. Louis, there has been $3 billion in new investment along the rail lines. It's clear that rail stops create islands of economic development around them. It's not like being near a bus stop, where the route can change or the line is eliminated entirely. Most of the lines we're using have been in place since the 1880s. They're not going anywhere." 

Dennis has personally endorsed the plan, as have most other area mayors and chambers of commerce. The plan got nods of approval from the rest of the board, although a formal vote of endorsement was not on the agenda. 

"I like this," said Alderman Leonard Jones. "The way we're doing it, with the existing rail, makes a lot of sense." 

"What can we do to help get this moving?" asked Alderman Joe Runions. 

"Unanimity is important," Sanders said, hinting that eventually, he'd like to see formal resolutions of support from Metro area cities. "At the federal level, they see the Kansas City region as fragmented and disunited. They see it has north versus south, east versus west. Now they're starting to see that we're coming together. That makes a big difference." 

Ferguson said the first study - the Rock Island and I-70 lines - will be complete this summer. The south line study should be complete toward the end of the year. 

"2013 could be the last year we see significant federal funds for this," Sanders said, hinting at what could happen if Republicans take the White House. "This could be our last chance for decades. Remember that there are only two major cities in the United States without comprehensive transit plans. That's us and Detroit. Do we want to be compared to Detroit? The fact of the matter is that this money is going to go somewhere. Through our gas taxes we've paid in billions over the years and we've watched that money go everywhere but here. It's our turn."

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