|June 6, 2000|
The Briefest History of Transit in Kansas City
|By Kite Singleton|
As we forge a new plan for transportation in Kansas City, look back at how we got to where we are, assess the ways in which we can set challenging yet realistic goals for where we want to be, and map out the ways we can achieve those goals.
In the beginning we were a river town; then we were a rail town; then a cow town; then a "city beautiful"; now a bustling, sprawled giant, the capitol of the freeway. And through it all it was transportation policy and transportation investment which guided the eras of Kansas City's growth. And we love it. Look what we have done as a total community for the greatest symbol of our love affair with transportation, Union Station!
The development of our internal transportation system is a story in itself. Starting with horse drawn trams, we then electrified them and by 1945 we were carrying some 136,000,000 passengers per year on one of the most extensive streetcar/trolley bus/bus systems in the country. And then it happened…
In our zeal to remedy substandard housing and neighborhoods (and they were bad) and with the blessing and financing of Federal highway initiatives we plowed new freeways through our old city blocks and around our central business district, embraced the automobile as the panacea of transportation and in the next forty years leaked out across our countryside from a density of 5,600 per square mile in 1950 to a current density of 1,400 per square mile.
But our planning leaders were not unaware of the potential for this phenomenon to disrupt life as we knew it, and they began laying the foundation for a sounder transportation policy. In 1967 City Planning Commissioner Clarence Kivett, FAIA and Director of City Planning Art Merkel put together a plan for knitting new transit ideas and new parking concepts together to protect the vitality that was downtown Kansas City in those days.
In 1971, the year that the Kansas City Area Transporation Authority (KCATA) acquired the remaining private transit operators, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects published a promotional piece advocating the renewal of investment in transit as a way to stem the growth of road congestion, air pollution, fuel consumption and disinvestment in the urban center. This call echoes the suggestions in the 1971 Downtown Plan of the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority which assumed that the single occupant auto commuter ratio would drop from 50% to 40% and transit usage would rise to 30% of commuter trips…these assumptions were never realized.
1971 was also the year in which Metroplan (predecessor to MARC) produced a Long Range Rapid Transit Sketch Plan which foresaw the development of seven "metro centers" ringing the city along the interstate freeway loop. And with the transportation policy which was at that time in place (and remains in place today) those predictions materialized and "Edge City" was born.
In 1975 the KCATA laid out a plan for 24 miles of fixed guideway transit as the backbone of their concept for improved transit service, beginning 25 years of planning toward a Kansas City light rail system. In 1981 planning had progressed to a recommended set of corridors for further study, generally radiating from downtown Kansas City, Missouri south along the Country Club right-of-way and South Midtown Freeway (later named Watkins Drive), east into Jackson County, west to Kansas City, Kansas and north through North Kansas City to Vivion Road. This was also the year that KCATA finally acquired ownership of the Country Club car line right-of-way.
1983 was the year of the Walnut Transit Mall plan, a concept which was successfully introduced in Denver, but after the miserable failure of the "mall" along Minnesota Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas, there was massive opposition to the Walnut proposal. 1987 saw the Grand-Main Plan, showing light rail running north on Grand, looping around the City Market and returning south on Main Street. This plan was profusely illustrated and well documented and it served as a step toward involving the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in the transit planning for Kansas City. 1989 saw a diversion for the study of a monorail system from the Crown Center hotels to Bartle Hall, a study which established the cost of monorail at some four to five times the cost of an at-grade light rail technology, and raised the skepticism that such a costly system could never be extended to become a regional system, an objective consistently sought in all this planning.
Then in 1992 KCATA was successful in winning funding for the Major Investment Study (MIS) from the FTA and for the next three years undertook the planning of a light rail system which ran from River Market out the Country Club and Watkins corridors with numerous permutations. The MIS ended with a "preferred alternative" which in 1994 dollars was anticipated to cost $450,000,000 to build, and the "starter phase", a single line ending at 52nd and Brookside, which was estimated at $200,000,000.
The MIS was approved by the KCATA Board, City Council, MARC, FTA and won Congressional funding for moving on to the Preliminary Engineering Phase (PE). This PE effort was halted in August of 1998 soon after there was discussion by public officials and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce concerning how effectively the project would connect people to jobs. This discussion issued in the Metropolitan Transit Initiative Demand Assessment and a transit system diagram.
Meanwhile back at the AIA/Kansas City, an initiative was started to begin a "comprehensive plan", the first since 1947, an idea which was approved by the City Council in 1993 and became FOCUS Kansas City. This plan became the most citizen-led planning process ever conceived by humankind, the outgrowth of Director Vicki Noteis' history in neighborhood activism, and eventually involved some 3,000 Kansas City residents and won the national Best Plan of the Year Award of the American Planning Association. One of the key facets of that plan was an insistence on fixed guideway transit as a tool to get people back and forth to work, to reinvigorate the disinvested urban core and to serve as a stimulant to the planning of more neighborly neighborhoods in our undeveloped suburban areas.
Well, Vicki picked up the shredded Preliminary Engineering plan, got the approval of the KCATA Board and the City Council to make it a part of FOCUS Kansas City's implementation phase, called for consultant credentials, selected a team of Kansas City and outside transit activists and experts and began a year-long process of forging a citizen-led consensus on what kind of transportation system this community needs and wants and will pay for.
There is great optimism abroad in the community now due to a number of factors:
a. The success of the FOCUS process in the past promises to make this process a success too, and it is off to a good start with acceptance of citizen leadership posts by energetic and successful people.
b. Subsequent to their dissatisfaction with the PE effort, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce undertook a study of public opinion on transit and found that there is a very large majority of residents, over 70%, who believe transit improvement is an important investment now.
c. There is a newly constituted citizen's transit lobby, the Regional Transit Alliance, now boasting some 600 members with many important business and civic leaders on board. d. Against all the opposition of the business and civic communities due to poorly described proposals, two transit propositions have nevertheless gathered significant voter support, the last one up to 38%.
e. The success of the Johnson County Commuter Rail Plan, now in Preliminary Engineering, and the rejection of funding for the Twentieth Century Parkway suggest that people in the Kansas City region have come to the realization that our transportation policy of near total reliance on the automobile is inadequate to today's transportation picture.
Kansas City's transportation future will not be a transit plan it will be a COMPREHENSIVE TRANSPORTATION POLICY which looks at the whole region and utilizes all modes of transportation in an appropriate mix: walking, biking, driving, taxis, paratransit, shuttles, busses, fixed-guideway transit, commuter rail. It will be a future which allows CHOICE IN TRANSPORTATION MODES, attracting "discretionary riders" who use transit by choice and empowering those too young or too old or too impaired to drive to reach the places they need to be without depending on others to drive them there. And we can do it!