Jackson County Transit Study Takes a New Direction
Posted by Transit Action Network on June 25, 2012
Calvin Williford, Jackson County Chief of Staff, recently wrote to the Jackson County Commuter Corridors Partner Team describing new developments related to the study currently underway. He said completion of the current commuter corridors study would be postponed and the County would move forward with a comprehensive transit plan. Letter_Partnership _Team
For almost two years everyone said the study would be completed and a “Locally Preferred Alternative” (LPA) would be decided in the June 2012 time frame. In a bold step, and with a growing understanding of transit needs, Jackson County decided to wait for more information. The county’s ambitious target date for having a conceptual countywide transit plan in place is the end of July.
Part of the reason for the postponement is that another study, this one in the Highway 71 / Grandview corridor, is just beginning and the County wants to gain an understanding of transit alternatives in that corridor before making any decisions since all three corridors are interrelated.
The biggest reason for the postponement, though, is that a new rail alternative has become available for consideration — the possibility of getting commuter rail to Union Station. This new alternative uses the Kansas City Terminal (KCT) Railway tracks to get into the area just north of Union Station. These are the tracks that Amtrak uses. It will be a big deal if the County can get the railroad to consider this. In the past KCT has always rejected the idea of accommodating commuter rail, and the cost of putting new tracks in that corridor would require expanding a number of bridges at an estimated cost of $1 billion.
This new KCT alternative is not without concerns. There are capacity issues since so many freight trains use these tracks daily. Therefore a capacity analysis has to be done first to see if this alternative is workable before formally evaluating this corridor for commuter service as part of the AA. Because of existing challenges, it was assumed from the beginning that KCT would not allow commuter rail on its tracks. No previous study has been completed to estimate costs, ridership numbers or travel-time savings to Union Station using this route.
Will this rail alternative have significantly better quantitative results than the Third and Grand alternative? We don’t know. The 2007 study of commuter rail in the I-70 corridor concluded: “Possible conflicts at Union Station with a high volume of freight traffic and Amtrak passenger service have a significant likelihood of negatively impacting commuter rail reliability, which is not acceptable when building ridership.” If capacity issues can be resolved, then this route should definitely be studied. This route would likely be shorter and provide a more desirable terminus — factors that could improve ridership forecasts.
Like the Third and Grand location, this route would require other transit service (such as the Downtown Streetcar) to provide access to the Central Business District (CBD). However, in contrast to the Third and Grand alternative, there are thousands of jobs in the vicinity of a terminal at Union Station. Since there isn’t a fast direct route from the highways to Union Station, commuter rail on the KCT tracks might compete favorably in travel time with driving, provided they can increase the speed of rail. Of course an express bus will likely still be faster to the Government District and the rest of the CBD.
So that leaves the question of cost. Can Jackson County persuade the railroads to bring the cost of access to their tracks down far enough that even if ridership projections are low and the travel time to the CBD is slow, the overall cost of getting to Union Station will be acceptable? Wait and see. The County is working very hard to put this together.
Williford’s letter also mentions Jackson County’s commitment to developing a comprehensive county-wide transit strategy that includes “rail, buses and a well-connected trails system”. The commuter corridors study process has raised the County’s awareness of the huge transit and trail gaps in the county, and considering a comprehensive package to take to voters is a great idea. In order to develop such a strategy, a number of groups have been convened to look at particular parts of an overall multi-modal plan. MARC is working with trails advocates to develop a detailed trails plan that satisfies multiple users, and the KCATA will be taking the lead in configuring and costing a more extensive bus system following the “Smart Moves” concept. Transit Action Network is part of a committee to identify the transit gaps. The original project team is working with the railroads on the capacity study to get into Union Station, but Third and Grand remains a fallback location for rail.
In a recent public meeting Williford talked about Jackson County’s serious “transit deficits” and made the following specific points:
- Every community that has developed rail transit has started first with a robust bus system. “Buses are the backbone of every transit system in the country,” he said, citing the “cost effectiveness” of buses over rail.
- Service for the mobility-impaired is inadequate.
- You can’t get from Kansas City to Independence after 6:00 at night.
Williford also said that while economic development is important, the county is placing greater emphasis on mobility than it did earlier. We think it’s great that the County’s understanding of the transit issues in the region has developed and expanded.
In order to create a comprehensive plan the County needs to fit all the pieces together with a financial package to pay for it. The County has taxing authority up to a one-cent sales tax. The full tax would raise approximately $80 million, derived almost equally from Kansas City and the rest of the county.
As part of this process, the County realized that parks and trails are really important to people. In the recently concluded session of the Missouri legislature the County successfully sought taxing authority for another ¼ cent sales tax for trails and parks. Such a tax could raise about $20 million.
Jackson County has taken on a huge challenge: Create a plan for commuter transit in three corridors, supplemental transit to fill numerous transit gaps throughout the county, and a set of parks and trails amenities. We hope they can come up with a great package at a cost that’ll be a “no-brainer” for voters to support.