Kansas City’s lack of effective public transit became very apparent when I visited Baltimore earlier this month. Instead of landing in the Baltimore -Washington Airport, I saved about $100 on my tickets by flying into Dulles Airport in northern Virginia.
The two are more than 60 miles apart, about the distance from Kansas City to Topeka, Kan., but getting from A to B using public transit was no hassle. In fact, it took less than two hours, and that was at the peak of Washington D.C.’s rush hour commute.
Trying to take public transit from KCI to UMKC, a distance of about 25 miles, would be highly impractical.
Why is there a the lack of quality bus service outside of the urban core and complete absence of regional transit?
There are several reasons.
One of the most obvious is the lack of density, which light rail proponents readily point out. Kansas City is built around an expansive freeway system, with more miles of highway per capita than any other city.
Kansas City’s metro ranks middle of the pack in population with 2 million residents, but ranks as one of the largest in terms of land area.
The flip side of the coin is that Kansas City’s urban core was very dense (and still is in some parts).
The predicament of low density development and poor transit is a chicken-and-egg scenario. Building a rail network across miles of low density development where it won’t likely be used is an endeavor that doesn’t seem to justify the cost.
At the same time, it would be difficult to find a densely-populated urban city that lacks quality transit. In many cities that have experienced population regrowth in their urban cores, the short commute and proximity to transit has been a deciding factor.
In this regard, Kansas City seems to be the exception. Our urban core has rebounded with the addition of thousands of new housing units downtown, but more concentrated redevelopment efforts are needed if Kansas City is serious about rebuilding its urban core.
The MAX lines on Main Street and Troost Avenue are a nice start for quality public transit, but a rail network and expanded suburban routes are also needed.
Unfortunately, the campaign to build a light rail network in Kansas City has been sabotaged by the very man who has led multiple ballot initiatives to build a light rail, Clay Chastain.
His unsuccessful write-in campaign for mayor, out-of-state residency and vaudeville personality have made him the laughing stock of Kansas City politics, sort of like an annoying ex or mother-in-law that won’t go away.
Once, in 2007, Chastain’s proposal won voter approval, but it was thrown out by the city council due to its logistical impracticality.
Thanks to Chastain’s incompetence and the provincialism of Kansas City voters, light rail in Kansas City is becoming less and less likely.
Currently, the city council is studying a proposed 2-mile streetcar line from the River Market to Crown center.
Although the streetcar line is a cheaper alternative to light rail and may appear to be a good idea, it could be a shortsighted move in the long run.
It seems to violate Mayor Sly James’ principle of “Go big or go home,” a promise the mayor has made when discussing a new downtown convention hotel, but one that does not seem to apply to transit.
As gasoline prices rise and young professionals look for cities with solid regional transit, Kansas City is on shaky footing.