Light Rail Post Mortem

The recent defeat of Light Rail is worthy of examination. What happened and why? What can we learn from its defeat? When it comes up again, how shall we judge its merits? To answer these questions look at the last Light Rail vote.

When the dust settled, the city sponsored Light Rail Referendum lost in 24 of 26 wards. By any interpretation that is a huge loss. While it is important that the city failed to get key endorsements, it is more important that the people saw the proposal for what it was.

1. WHO BENEFITS ?

The city tried to sell their proposal as a transit plan but when the people looked beyond the fancy words, pretty pictures, and cost figures, they realized that it was just another development project. Instead of being a plan to move people from place to place, it was a plan to move people off their property so it could be delivered to developers who would be the prime beneficiaries of any increase in property value.

To really understand a proposal, ask yourself, "Who stands to make the biggest profit and how will it happen?" When select groups profit the most from condemnation (through eminent domain) and tax breaks (through TIF districts), you can be sure that moving people on Light Rail is not their biggest concern.

2. WHAT IS THE REAL COST TO BUILD LIGHT RAIL ?

The real cost of a project can best be understood by looking at similar projects. In almost every case, Light Rail proposals give per mile cost figures well below historical averages. Every Light Rail project has three costs associated with it.

First, there is the estimate issued before the vote.

Second, there is the estimate after the project is started (usually a couple of years after).

Third, there is the actual cost determined after the project is complete.

In Dallas, the first estimate was $18 million per mile, the second estimate was $40 million per mile, and the third and final, actual cost was $38 million per mile. Kansas City told its voters that the cost was $30 million per mile, knowing full well that ten years earlier Dallas actual cost was $38 million per mile.

The way it works is a city gives the voters a cost and a size on their rail plan. When it costs more than the estimate (which it always has), they reduce the number of miles of rail. In Kansas City, their plan for 24 miles at $30 million per mile would have turned out to be 16 miles at $40 million per mile. The 8 miles of rail eliminated would most likely have been the line north of the river and the Troost Corridor. Conveniently, the remaining route turns out to be what the city really wanted anyway. For the truth in construction costs, look to historical facts, not the self-serving "estimates" of the plan's promoters.

3. WHAT IS THE REAL COST TO MAINTAIN LIGHT RAIL ?

While history tells you what it really coasts to build light rail, it also tells you what it costs to maintain and operate a system. Light Rail systems do "NOT" pay their way. They must be subsidized by taxpayers forever. Look east to St. Louis to see a Light Rail system in jeopardy because temporary operating funds are drying up. In California, one light rail system shut down one of their lines because they couldn't afford to operate it. Another California City, trying to build operating revenue, shut down bus lines to force riders to ride the rail. The riders sued the Bus Company and the judge ordered the Bus Company to resume bus service.

Kansas City has no magic formula for creating money out of thin air. Your tax dollars, obtained whatever way possible, will be required to maintain Light Rail. Operating costs have historically been underestimated (just like construction costs). For the truth in operating costs, look to historical facts, not the self-serving "estimates" of the plan's promoters.

4. WHO WILL LIGHT RAIL SERVE ?

The most common comment heard on the failed city Light Rail proposal was, "It doesn't go anywhere." Stated another way, it won't serve the riders who need it most. The proposed rail plan did not go to the airport. It went part way north and part way south but never reached out to bring riders into the city or to take them to prime destinations like the airport or the stadiums. Even the east-west line to the Jazz District was not for Light Rail, but was to run a kind of trolley car. If this seems strange, remember that the city plan was not a transit plan. It was a development plan.

When evaluating a proposal, ask yourself, "Does this plan do what the promoters say it will do? Does the plan serve the people they say it will serve?"

5. IS THE PROPOSAL THE BEST USE OF MY TAX MONEY ?

You have to allocate your money for the best uses according to how you want to live your life &endash; and you have to do it within your income. The city should do the same. Many Kansas City voters asked, "Why should I vote for Light Rail when I can't even get my trash picked up for weeks on end? "Why have Light Rail when I can't get a policeman to answer a call for help? Why have Light Rail when our streets are riddled with potholes? It is right, even necessary, to ask if basic services are being neglected in favor of some grand scheme. Grand proposals are usually accompanied by promises to increase previously neglected city services. Almost always, these promises are forgotten before the echo of the promoter's voices fade away.

To evaluate the best use of tax money, simply ask yourself, "If I ran the city, is this really how I would spend the taxpayer's money?"

6. IS THERE A BETTER ALTERNATIVE PLAN ?

The failed Kansas City Light Rail plan would have created havoc in the business districts where the rails would have run. Businesses would have been shut down, infrastructure services disrupted, traffic rerouted to build the city's rail system. Almost no mention was made of an existing Light Rail plan that would accomplish the stated transit goals with very little disruption of life in the city. That plan is to run the rail underground. Kansas City sits on solid rock, ideal for boring rail tunnels. They could go along any desired path without disturbing anyone above ground. The only disruption would be at the designated transit stop sites where the tunnel would come to the surface. New York, London, and Paris all have underground rail systems. In these cities, businesses above ground continue to serve people at ground level, while small mini-malls exist below ground to serve transit riders. Very little property was condemned, or even disturbed, during construction of these systems. Remember, these systems were built as transit projects, not development projects.

When evaluating a proposal, it makes sense to look for the best alternative.

7. SHOULD YOU VOTE FOR LIGHT RAIL ?

The decision is just like any other proposal by the city. Answer these questions.

 

If you like your answers, then vote yes. If you don't, vote no. Its that simple!

And always remember --Politicians will always pay more attention to their friends, supporters, and wealthy contributors than the taxpaying public they are sworn to serve. That's the way it is! That's the way it has always been! That's the way it will always be! It is up to you to make the difference when you step into the voting booth. An informed electorate will make good decisions during elections. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Be vigilant! Be informed! Learn all about the issues, then vote your conscience!

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