Kansas City has tried four times to bring an effective system of light rail to its streets.
Like many cities, Kansas City had a viable light rail system until the 1950s, when a combination of pressure from concrete and automobile companies led to the streetcar system’s demise. People loved their cars, still do, and environmental concerns were not as important as they are today with the issues of air pollution and suburban sprawl adding increased pressure for city governments to make their cities more healthy and more convenient.
Kansas City has tried four times to bring an effective system of light rail to its streets, attempting to gain a big chunk of tax dollars from the federal government to help pay for such a system. The first three times, a local activist by the name of Clay Chastain was instrumental in getting the issue on the local ballot. Each time the issue was defeated.
In 2001, a local group backed by the Kansas City Mayor, Kay Barnes, placed a tax on the ballot for a plan that, at first, seemed destined to pass. Supported by “The Kansas City Star,” the tax plan was well publicized, having its own web site, its own videotape, and many neighborhood meetings with concerned citizens.
However, on August 7, 2001, the light rail plan was defeated, this time by a 60% to 40% margin. Opponents believed this defeat would kill light rail for Kansas City. Proponents tried to understand how the plan was defeated so badly. Very soon afterwards, Mayor Kay Barnes announced she would move from her south Kansas City home to a new house north of the Missouri River, an area that voted overwhelmingly against light rail. Only the western-most corridor of Kansas City voted for the resolution.
What was going on here? Why did predominantly white Kansas City north and predominantly black eastern Kansas City vote together against light rail?
A map of Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO) reveals a number of concepts about its soul. First, the map shows the city to have a twin. Bridges mostly connect Kansas City, Kansas (KCK), to KCMO over the Kansas River. Both cities might support the football Chiefs and the baseball Royals, but KCMO picks up the tab. The new NASCAR Race Track is across the Kansas River and, while KCMO no doubt visits the track, KCK picks up that tax burden.
Second, north KCMO is divided from south KCMO by the Missouri River. North KCMO has always felt cut off from the mini-skyscrapers and traditional KCMO downtown politics. Almost a suburb but sharing the same name and tax rates, north KCMO is a stepchild often ignored by south KCMO. The latest light rail plan, for example, connected the north and south but stopped short of the Kansas City International airport in north KCMO, a tactical error by the light rail planners from the south.
Third, even though the nearly all African-American community in KCMO just east of Troost Avenue would benefit greatly from a light rail track down Troost, at least one important member of the community, former Mayor Emmanuel Cleaver, had called light rail “touristy frou-frou,” during an earlier battle. Furthermore, the importance of light rail to eastern KCMO had not been well-advertised and promoted.
Fourth, across the State Line in Johnson County, Kansas, taxpayers were feeling a little left out. Although not being able to vote on the light rail plan, they were still instrumental in defeating the plan, since the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce asked KCMO to vote it down. Many Chamber members live across the state line in Kansas (17 out of 27 life members live in Johnson County). Perhaps the Johnson County folks were still fuming over the bi-state tax a few years back that helped pay for improvements in KCMO, The Liberty Memorial and Union Station, but were no doubt disappointed in the highly regaled, but extremely disappointing, Science City exhibit at the Station. Did they want another bi-state tax in the future if it were going to be another fiasco? Did they see anything in the newest KCMO plan that would help them get downtown, to the airport, to shopping on The Plaza or to the Chiefs’ games any faster? Absolutely not. The plan did not take Johnson County anywhere.
Johnson County was left out of the transit plan but the CBC Transit folks believed the starter line they proposed would let Johnson County in as soon as Johnson County could pass its own light rail tax.
The twenty-five year, ½ cent sales tax plan for KCMO would pay 40% of the $793 million dollars needed with the other 60% ($475 million) coming from federal funding. On paper, the deal looked too good to pass up.
But the Central Business Corridor Plan, north from Watkins, then down Troost to Main, then out north to North Oak Trafficway, was drawing a lot of flak. It stopped suddenly in the northland. It did not go out to the airport (KCI).
Furthermore, the homesteaders in Hyde Park and in Westport, the businesses on Main Street and in Westport became concerned about the upheaval the construction and the possibility of the city using eminent domain to take over their homes, their small businesses.
During the campaign to pass light rail, the transit plan met many times in small neighborhood meetings to answer questions, but the answers did not seem good enough to convince these groups. They rebelled, fearing they could not support a plan that might damage all they had been working for.
Calling its web site “The Truth about Light Rail,” the anti-light rail group took advantage of neighborhood fear. Using a negative attack in their announcements and on their web site, they exaggerated the harm that light rail stations might do to neighborhoods. Instead of using the transit plan’s maps and diagrams, they made their own, vastly increasing the size of the little “dots” depicting these stations. On their maps these “dots” became “bomb images,” straight out of World War II bombing runs.
The map was very graphic, showing how eminent domain would wipe out or change forever the neighborhoods along the route.
However, the map was an exaggeration and did not show “the truth.” Instead it played upon the fears of the citizens, a negative campaign instrumental in defeating the light rail plan. A comparison between the two maps reveals the exaggeration of the anti-light rail forces.
Describing this map as the “Kansas City Bombing Run,” the group named “The Truth about Kansas City Light Rail” increased the size of the transit stations from a one block in diameter to some 10 blocks in diameter, sometimes overlapping the circles to show miles being “destroyed” by these stations. Building on the fears of the neighborhood groups, “Truth” greatly modified the effects of the actual 800 feet radius proposed.
Furthermore, “Truth” exaggerated other aspects of the light rail plan, asking “Will midtown residential areas be bulldozed?” They asserted:
1. Historical properties may be demolished.
2. Your property can be taken and transferred intact for use by a developer.
3. Your property values will be frozen at last year’s evaluation and that is what you get when they buy you out.
4. Until you are bought out, you will get to live in a neighborhood that, since it is slated for demolition, will have no possibilities of improvement.
5. For the next ten years you will live in or around a construction zone.
6. The developers get our land.
7. We get to pay more taxes.
These negative possibilities were emphasized during the weeks before the vote, and those neighborhoods along the proposed line were scared.
Along with direct exaggerations of what the transit plan might cause, the anti-transit people dueled with words against the pro-transit people. But the anti’s had the scariest words.
After the defeat, 27 people took a non-scientific survey, which used some of the words used by both sides in the election battle. Survey takers rated these fifteen words from 1-15, with the number one signifying the most negative word used to categorize any plan, and the number 15 signifying the most positive word supporting any plan. Survey takers were not told these words related to the light rail defeat.
The results were as follows, with the lowest totals being the most negative words.
1. (58) insidious trick
2. (93) dead
3. (111) boondoggle
4. (119) backward
5. (120) land grab
6. (141) outrageous
7. (151) in vain
8. (176) unanswered questions
9. (285) endorsed
10. (290) futuristic
11. (304) modern
12. (332) forward-thinking
13. (333) sensible
14. (341) significant
15. (363) effective
Ordinarily, we think of negative campaigning when it impacts national elections or
politics: The famous “daisy” atomic bomb ad against the candidacy of Barry Goldwater; the film put together by folks in Arkansas against Bill Clinton, accusing him of murdering an aide; the word “rat” being emphasized in an ad against Gore last year.
But negative articles and advertisements also affected the light-rail vote. One article in particular, in “Pitch Weekly,” the alternative weekly Kansas City newspaper, entitled its anti-transit plan headline, “Train in Vain.” Not only does it emphasize the sixth phrase on the survey list (in vain), Casey Logan’s article also used many more negatives in its attack on light rail, especially the number one derogatory comment: “insidious trick.” Another example, inside, the headline “Train in Vain” was changed to “Dead in its Track.” The word “dead” was second on the survey.
One seemingly favorable word, “endorsed,” was used three times in the article, but only to mention that the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce had NOT endorsed the plan.
But the phrase most repeated in Logan’s article was from the middle of the survey results. “Unanswered questions,” number eight on the list or a phrase similar to it (“lack of knowledge,” “more information,” “too many questions”) seemed to be the one issue the article addressed which caused people to back away from the light-rail plan.
If, after months of planning, meetings around town and a special web site and film, the Central Business Corridor people could not get the citizens to understand the plan, then the vote on August 7th was indeed doomed.
But Kansas City has not given up on light rail yet, even though the naysayers are gloating over its recent defeat.
No, letters to the editor deplored the defeat, calling the city “a backward cowtown for eternity,” “a backwater/cowtown,” and as a “cowtown image as a badge of honor.”
Most recently, the former Kansas Citian and light-rail advocate, Clay Chastain, returned to town with a new transit plan. He is advocating a ½ cent sales tax for 10 years. And his plan would run the line from Union Station to the stadiums to the east and from Union Station to the KCI airport to the north.
Will he be successful? Who knows? But the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has seemingly endorsed going ahead in the future. Its chairman, G. Richard Hastings, writes: “Could light rail be a part of this vision? Certainly, if it is in the context of an affordable, comprehensive, regional system of public transportation.”
Ironically, G. Richard Hastings and the Chamber have offered these types of conditions before. As Logan explained in his article, “The effect has been like the old dollar-bill-on-a-string trick. Just when light-rail planners get duped into thinking they can snatch an endorsement, the chamber yanks back and lets fly with a flurry of news releases to spite the plan.”
What sort of an organization can answer questions when the questions keep changing?