Future of KC's light-rail plan in doubt

Friday, August 10, 2007

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The future of a light-rail plan approved by voters last year is in doubt after the Kansas City Council was told there's not enough money to pay for it, and a petition seeking to repeal the plan was officially verified.

Consultants told a council committee Thursday that a funding mechanism included in the proposal would fall more than a half-billion dollars short of providing the money needed to build and operate the system.

The consultants, led by HNTB Corp., also said they found engineering and environmental problems that would add millions to the project's cost and possibly violate federal regulations of parks.

After the meeting, the council was told that a petition asking the city to throw out the plan or send it back to voters had enough valid signatures.

Mayor Mark Funkhouser said he would introduce an ordinance next Thursday calling for a November vote on whether to repeal the plan approved by voters in November 2006. Several council members said they would prefer having the vote in February, to provide more time to present voters with an alternative.

After hearing the report, Kansas City officials said they still wanted light rail to be built, but said the consultants validated some concerns about the current plan.

"I believe this mayor and council are committed to light rail," said Ed Ford, chairman of the Transportation Committee.

The preliminary report, presented to the Kansas City Council's Transportation Committee, was the first time outside engineers had studied the plan since it was approved.

"We finally have some engineering professionals who have applied construction principles and standards to give us a cost," said Mark Huffer, general manager of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, the city's primary provider of bus service.

"The ATA has been pushing for light rail for over two decades, but we have to come up with a reasonable and constructible plan. This plan cannot be constructed with the revenue stream predicted for it. "

The report found that a proposal to use a three-eighths-cent sales tax to fund a 27-mile route from the Kansas City Zoo to Kansas City International Airport would come up more than a half-billion dollars short for providing the money needed for the system.

The consultants also estimated that the construction cost would be $1.5 billion, about $600 million higher than the estimate from Clay Chastain, who planned the project and was the catalyst for getting it approved by voters.

Chastain said he disagreed with the estimates of construction costs and money available from the sales tax.

"I see these numbers as predictably inflated, to support the contention that the plan is not workable," Chastain said. "We can build this light-rail for $45 million a mile, not $60 million," by changing the project's original scope, he said.

Chastain said he did agree with consultants' projections of overall operating losses of $73.7 million, in 2007 dollars, by the end of 2034.

He said the Missouri Department of Transportation should contribute $100 million to operate light rail. That's what the state spends on general transit for about 25 years, according to the department.

But consultants found problems with Chastain's plan that went beyond money. They said bridges that would carry some of the light-rail trains would have to be strengthened or replaced, at a cost of millions of dollars.

And running a portion of the rail through Penn Valley Park would be "as close to a fatal flaw as you can get" because of federal regulations on parkland, said Ken Kinney, a light-rail expert from HNTB.

And it said running the system to the airport would not be cost effective because population and employment centers thin out north of downtown.

The consultants convinced the mayor that Chastain's plan is in trouble.

"Frankly, (the petitioners) are going to win," Funkhouser said.

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