Central Business Corridor Transit Plan FOCUS Transit Team
Jerry Heaster's Kansas City Star column of 6/9/00 flies in the face of
widely held positions on public transit among many urban analysts: where
most practitioners today, urban designers, urban lawyers, planners and
transportation engineers see transit as an investment in the rebuilding of
disinvested urban centers and a stimulus to more fiscally conservative
suburban growth, Heaster's source, Thomas J. Di Lorenzo, holds that
transit falls short of these and a number of other evaluation criteria. Di
Lorenzo is author of eight books, a conservative academic affiliated with
several institutions including the Center For The Study of American
Business, which "believes in free markets and works to increase public
understanding of the private enterprise system".
To support this position Heaster cites a number of Di Lorenzo's
statistics which appear to show that transit is a poor investment.
Especially interesting is Heaster's statement that "…public transit's
share of urban passenger miles has shrunk from 30 percent in 1945 to 2
percent today." That should come as no surprise to anyone who is
experiencing rising congestion even in Kansas City's generous freeway
system. For the past forty years we have poured massive subsidies into our
automobile transportation infrastructure, fought wars to maintain the free
flow of petroleum to fuel our cars and promoted in every way the
attraction to automobile ownership. ..all at the expense of transit
The $150 billion which Heaster cites being spent to build public
transit since the mid-1960's pales in comparison to that which we have
spent in road, bridge and petroleum subsidies. And those who are
responsible for the maintenance of our road and bridge systems indicate
that we are woefully in arrears in this category, an additional cost which
we are currently avoiding and which will further increase the real cost of
our automobile transportation system as we begin to deal with it.
If we would look at our automobile transportation system with the same
lenses Heaster uses on transit, we would conclude that it too is "…so
manifestly wasteful (that it) would have long since been scrapped as an
intolerable drain on society's resources".
Other Evidence Tells A Different Story
A critical review of
these statistics does not support their use in denigrating public transit
investment: To say that "…building a light-rail project here would prove
just as wasteful an exercise as similar projects have proved to be
elsewhere" is to ignore the reality of numerous cities who are making this
investment. On October 3rd of last year the Dallas Morning News reported
that "DART rail is seeding development throughout the Dallas area", and
cites eight projects being initiated along their new rail lines. The
February 8th 1999 Denver Business Journal reported that "Business owners
and residents in lower downtown are close to raising $250,000 to extend
the 16th Street Mall shuttle to Union Station… Landowners in the (Central
Platte) valley…have contributed another $4.5 million worth of right of
way…(they) aren't giving just to be generous…(they are) counting on more
pedestian traffic and visits from those turned off by tight parking…(they)
expect to see an increase in property values."
Listen to the Voters
Some twelve urban light rail systems
have been developed in the United States over the past 18 years, and the
voters in most of those cities have not only voted to tax themselves to
raise the local matching funds for their planning, design, construction
and operation, but have voted again, after inauguration of the first
lines, to extend these lines into other neighborhoods. Even after a Grand
Jury report in Orange County, California frightened voters in some Orange
County communities into rejecting their proposed transit plan, the Orange
County Transportation Authority continues with voter approval to plan for
the construction of some 15 miles of light rail. And even the
lay-generated transit petitions which have been put on Kansas City's
ballots over the past few years have generated significant voter support.
Frustration with Growing Road Congestion
A great source of
this kind of voter support is a growing public realization that urban
transportation problems, especially congestion, are not being addressed by
adding more road capacity. The active Johnson County Commuter Rail
initiative is reflective of this realization. The Johnson County
Commission's rejection of the Twentieth Century Parkway also suggests a
waning confidence in the power of more roads to solve transportation
problems. Kansas City's Northland/Downtown Major Investment Study is
grappling with the congestion of the Missouri River bridges, and is
finding that the introduction of more lane capacity will only exacerbate
the congestion problem by squeezing this added traffic into the already
cramped rights-of-way north and south of these bridges.
Transit for those with Special Needs
that transportation subsidy to be focused on "…individual special needs
transit…economically disadvantaged, the disabled or the elderly unable to
get around on their own" fails to recognize the impact which our
automobile-dominant system has had on the quality of our lives. When we
drive everywhere we are segregated from others and when we get to our
destination we have to store our car in a parking lot which also distances
us from others. The result is the separation of our communities in a way
which makes the vibrancy which we admire in European cities or places like
San Francisco impossible. There are now over 250 million cars in the
United States, one for every man, woman and child in the nation, and for
each of those cars we have built eight parking spaces.
It is true that these disadvantaged groups need to be served, but as in
most of our other social policies we have begun to realize the positive
benefits of "mainstreaming" people with special needs, not segregating
them. It is the sameness and lack of diversity in our suburban communities
which our younger generation is finding too bland for their liking, and
the source of the resurgence we are seeing in our urban centers.
Growing Real Estate Investment in the Urban Centers
a clear, growing trend in many of Kansas City's competitor cities,
Minneapolis, Denver, Dallas, Houston, showing highly active urban
residential development markets. The fact that these cities are each in
various stages of developing high-density transit systems suggests their
realization that transit investments will compliment this market reality.
Jeff Spivak has recently reported in the Kansas City Star that real estate
at Kansas City's urban center is growing in value at a faster rate than
suburban real estate, and an urban residential trend is quietly developing
here too. The Downtown Council's 1998 survey showed strong market interest
in urban housing. While the "me too" syndrome is never sound policy, there
is sound rationale in studying how these other cities are trying to deal
with this growing activity in their urban centers.
How Should We Proceed in Kansas City?
The first fact to keep
in mind in Kansas City is that there is as yet no decision on whether to
build or if so, what kind of transit technology to utilize. Raising
concern about "light rail" now is premature.
The Central Business Corridor Transit Plan is not promoting light rail;
it is studying a wide variety of approaches to relieving the perceived
transportation problems facing the whole community. There is, however, a
conviction in FOCUS Kansas City comprehensive plan that public transit can
play a role in the development and redevelopment of this city, that we
need to offer an attractive choice in transportation modes , alternatives
to the automobile, a more balanced transportation policy.
Is no-build a viable decision? Is light rail right for Kansas City?
Should we choose another technology? Should it be on Main or Broadway or
Grand or Troost or Prospect or Volker? How does it interface with Johnson
County's Commuter Rail plan, or KCATA's growing bus service? Is there a
role for a system of bikeways? How far will we walk to a transit stop?
Should vehicles arrive at 7 or 10 or 20 minute intervals? What economic
development objectives should we anticipate from this investment? How long
will it take to build?
With the team of citizen leaders which Mayor Barnes has asked to serve
and with the transportation and urban design experts on their consultant
team and following the pattern of public participation which 3,000 Kansas
City volunteers pioneered in FOCUS, this community can anticipate the
discovery of answers which will be broadly acceptable and probably
back to Transit