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Heavy concerns about light rail

by Alan McArthur and Ivan Foley
Landmark staff

During the Platte County Commission meeting Thursday afternoon, the commissioners discussed some issues dealing with the proposed regional transit plan being touted by city hall in Kansas City--and the current sales tax rate in Platte County became a topic of discussion.

Commissioner Jim Plunkett pointed out that Kansas City in Platte County already has the highest sales tax rate in the metro area.

Kansas City in Platte County has a tax rate of 7.975 percent compared to Kansas City in Jackson County at 7.725 percent and Kansas City in Clay County at 7.475 percent.

The nearest total tax rate is in Leawood in Johnson County, Kan. The tax rate in Leawood is at 7.925 percent. Lenexa, Olathe, and Overland Park in Johnson County all have a total sales tax rate of 7.525 percent.

The total tax rate for Kansas City in Platte County of 7.975 percent comes from a 2.375 percent tax for Kansas City, 4.225 percent for the state of Missouri, and 1.375 percent for Platte County.

The total rate for Kansas City is because of a one percent tax for capital improvements, half cent for public mass transit, quarter cent tax for firefighters, quarter cent tax for police and the 3/8-cent tax for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

In the county, there is a half cent tax for county operations, another half cent tax for parks, and a 3/8-cent tax for roads.

“Kansas City within Platte County has the highest tax rate around,” Plunkett emphasized.
A half cent tax for regional transit would be applied throughout Platte, Clay, and Jackson counties and would not be limited to only inside the city limits of Kansas City.

With the addition of the regional transit tax, the total rate in Kansas City in Platte County would increase to 8.475 percent on all goods purchased. For prepared food and beverages, there is also a tax of two percent in Kansas City.

Plunkett said he is also frustrated because there doesn't appear to be one concrete light rail plan being discussed. He also is frustrated to note the light rail system would not cover its own expenses. He said one study indicates 80% of the sales tax would go to subsidize the system, and another study indicates 50% of the sales tax would subsidize the system.

“I see the need for this, but I have so many questions,” said Plunkett. “I fear that we'll push this too quickly.”

Plunkett added: “We’re 60 days from the deadline to put something on the November ballot and there is still not a firm plan in place.”

According to Betty Knight, presiding commissioner, putting something on the ballot before it is ready and having it fail makes getting it passed even more difficult in the future.

“As it is, it will probably not pass, and once you put something on the ballot and it fails, it becomes tougher to get it passed,” said Knight.

The presiding commissioner added that a vote on a concept--and not a specific plan--is “probably not going to pass.”

“How can we plan the finances if we don't know where it will go?” said Betty Knight, presiding commissioner. “I don't see any sense in putting it on the ballot in November.”

Knight, looking to the other commissioners, said: “I get the sense from you all that we’re not comfortable putting it on the ballot in November.”

She said Platte County voters are going to want to know “how are we going to benefit from it?”
Pointing out the county could contribute $7 million sales tax per year to the transit plan, Knight remarked: “$7 million per year for two bus routes in Platte County has us coming up short.”

Plunkett pointed out that in the proposal, over 90% of Platte County’s sales tax contribution would be going to pay for transit services in other parts of the metro area.

Kansas City’s light rail plan includes no actual light rail coming to Platte County. Express buses would provide service to Platte County.

Another commissioner said the light rail plan did not seem to make sense because of the large amount of highways in the Kansas City area.

“Kansas City has such a good interstate system that light rail is not better than our interstate system,” said Tom Pryor, commissioner.

The commission meeting was held a day ahead of a transit meeting in Riverside on Friday, allowing mayors and county commissioners to discuss the proposed regional transit plan.



A regional transit summit on Friday in Riverside provided little new information about a proposed regional light rail and transit system for the Kansas City Metropolitan area.

The summit was attended by mayors and county commissioners from Platte, Clay and Jackson counties. Mark Funkhouser, Kansas City mayor, and Russ Johnson, a Northland city councilman for Kansas City, were present.

The general consensus reached at the meeting was to wait for the Mid-America Regional Council, MARC, to release its updated Smart Moves plan. The Smart Moves plan is a regional transit plan developed to incorporate both Kansas and Missouri in a network of rail and bus transit.

“We should look at the Smart Moves plan first,” said Kathy Rose, Riverside mayor. “The goal is to build on the Smart Moves plan and put together an internet web survey to let input shape the final plan.”

One of the items discussed at the meeting was the way to finance the regional system with the tax money.

According to Craig Porter, Clay County eastern district commissioner, a half cent sales tax would generate revenue of approximately $60 million per year.

Porter also said the finance committee studying the plan supported an equal distribution of funds between the three counties for the system and said the plan should require all three counties to approve the plan in order to move forward.

Another point he made was that at the end of the 15-year tax, only 20 percent of the operating cost would come from fares on the system and the rest would have to be subsidized.

“This will never be paid for, it will always be subsidized,” said Porter. “There will always be some kind of tax in place to fund it.”

Some of the county commissioners have expressed reluctance at placing the proposed 1/2-cent sales tax on the November ballot without a firm transit plan in place.

“When we're spending this amount of money, the public expects us to have this figured out before going to them,” said Betty Knight, Platte County presiding commissioner.

However, Kansas City has committed to placing a light rail starter line on the ballot in November. Kansas City Councilman Russ Johnson has promised the starter line after the Kansas City Council voted to do away with a voter-approved light rail initiative from November 2006.

“Kansas City intends to build a piece of the regional system, then it will be able to be extended or expanded,” said Johnson. “We believe we will win in November.”

The group will meet again on July 25 at the Gladstone Community Center.


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