The last item on next Tuesday’s ballot will be the Light Rail question. I’ve struggled with this one, caught between the hopeful image of clean rail cars swiftly delivering workers around the city, and the staggering reality of spending a billion dollars for an abbreviated gimmick. As much as I want to embrace the change, I cannot get on board for the light rail extravaganza, and I will be voting against it.
I reach that conclusion regretfully and respectfully. I think the vast majority of the supporters of Light Rail are forward-thinking and well-intentioned. I simply think they are not paying enough attention to the reality of the proposal. In my opinion, the light rail proposal costs too much, accomplishes too little, disproportionately burdens the poor, weakens our city’s ability to address the future, and contains way too many unresolved questions.
Costs too much. Even the proponents of this measure acknowledge that we’re looking at spending a billion dollars on the starter line. That’s over $2,200 dollars for every man, woman and child in Kansas City. Now, I’m perfectly willing to blow big taxpayer dollars for the right project, but not for a train that doesn’t even get me to the airport. And, after we install it, we have to pay operating subsidies every year to keep it running. In the face of an economic slowdown and a tightening of credit, can Kansas City truly afford to saddle itself with another expense that keeps on charging?
Accomplishes too little. This line won’t get anyone to the airport. This line won’t get anyone out to South Johnson County. You won’t be able to ride it to the stadiums. It won’t serve the West Side, or the Northeast. It will probably skip Westport, and it will definitely skip The Legends. It’s only a starter line – a truncated version of what we all wish we could have.
While my optimistic friends claim that we have to start somewhere, the truth is that this “start” will have us paying 3/8 of a percent in sales tax for 25 years. Does anybody believe that we will be able to afford to toss in another, probably higher, tax to run it up to the airport in a few years? And then another to run it to the stadiums? No magic genie is going to make our starter line grow into a robust rail system. Instead, we will blow all our money on a starter line that will remain a starter line for at least a quarter century.
Disproportionately burdens the poor. Sales taxes are regressive – those who spend everything they own on goods to survive bear a disproportionate measure of the tax burden. Sales taxes in a city surrounded by other shopping venues are even more regressive. Ironically, those of us blessed with personal transportation will be able to cruise over to a locale with a reduced sales tax rate while those dependent on the rails will be stuck with high taxes.
Weakens our city’s ability to address the future. The billion dollars we are talking about spending on this starter line is money that will not be around to meet future wants, or even our current needs. We have a host of infrastructure needs that aren’t as pretty or exciting as a rail car, but they must to be met. If we go “all in” for light rail, we will be taxing ourselves to the hilt and we will not be able to go back and tax ourselves to address our delapidated sewer system, or upgrade our buses, or build a downtown stadium, or any of the dozens of desires and must-haves that we will develop in the coming years. We’re kind of like the kid swearing to his parents that if he can just have this bike, he will never, ever ask for anything else again. Smart parents know better.
Too many unresolved questions. What route will the plan take through downtown? Cordish wants the route adjusted away from Grand even though that is the most logical route available, and nobody will tell Kansas City voters what route we will use. (A cynic might be justified in concluding that the planners simply don’t want to announce Cordish’s victory until after voters are fully on the hook.) Similarly, we don’t know what the ridership projections are – yet we’re supposed to tax ourselves without knowing them. Even more shockingly, we don’t know how much, if any, the federal government will toss into this project. The economic feasibility of the project hinges on the feds coming up with almost half of the money, but there’s no promise that we’ll get anything remotely like that amount. But, regardless, the tax will start being imposed right away.
A light rail system would be a nice thing to have, and I want one. I don’t dispute that it would help some workers get to some jobs, and it would have some economic development benefits along the line. Light rail is a great idea. But so are a lot of things that we cannot afford. We cannot afford to blow a billion bucks on a starter line that will take too few people too few places.