Archive for Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Tough transit choices loom

August 6, 2008

The situation seems almost untenable and it's not going to get better any time soon without some careful thought and a lot of hard work.

Real gasoline prices - that is, with inflation figured in - have risen beyond the levels they were during the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, and although they have momentarily dropped a little below $4 per gallon for regular, the long-term trend seems to be up.

Traffic congestion is hideous in places. If you're fortunate enough not to have to use the interstate system to drive to work, swing by and have a look some day. Parts of interstates 35, 70 and 435 turn into rolling parking lots during rush hour.

Part of the problem is that, like a lot of the rest of our crumbling infrastructure, road and highway construction has not kept pace with increases in traffic. According to the Federal Highway Administration, lane-miles of highways increased 5 percent from 1980 to 2003, while vehicle-miles of travel increased 89 percent during the same period.

In 2003, according to the Texas Transportation Institute, congestion in 85 urban areas added up to 3.7 billion hours of delay, an annual delay of 43 hours per person. Those delays cost an estimated $384 per person in wasted time and fuel.

Two things seem evident. One, we need to make the most efficient use we can of scarce fuel resources, and two, we need to find better ways to get everybody where they're going in a timely fashion.

We could solve some of these problems with a better public transit system. As enamored as Americans are with personal transport - and Johnson and Wyandotte countians probably would be as lost without their cars as anyone - having everyone rushing around willy-nilly, one to a vehicle, is terribly inefficient, even wasteful with fuel prices at today's levels.

Gathering people together, say 30 to a bus or even 150 or 200 to a light-rail train, would permit much more efficient use of fuel and of space on congested highways.

Unfortunately, our current public transit system consists of a few buses with bare-bones routes that don't go where most people need to go.

Our geography complicates the potential solutions to this problem, as the Kansas-Missouri state line splits the metropolitan area more or less in half.

And we won't be able to truly solve this problem - and a lot of others, such as funding for areawide attractions like the Kansas City Zoo, the Royals, the Chiefs, Union Station, the performing arts center even now under construction downtown - until we can craft a fair way of sharing the costs.

Our history works against us in this regard. In the years after World War II, our parents and grandparents shook the city's dust off their boots and moved to the suburbs, where land was cheaper and they didn't have to pay for expensive public works, nor contend with urban problems like poverty, crime, overcrowding, pollution and so on.

Fifty years later, we find that many of the problems our forebears thought they were escaping have moved out to the suburbs as well. The bargain doesn't seem so ironclad any more.

Many of our once-local problems have become regional, and can only be fixed with regional solutions. Admittedly, the bistate tax plan that was used to renovate Union Station had some drawbacks, but we cannot escape the need for intrastate cooperation. The alternative is that our problems will continue to worsen.

Kansas City, Mo., is going its own way with light rail. The latest plan at City Hall runs from north of the river through downtown and the Country Club Plaza before heading eastward on Bruce Watkins Drive. Extending the line north of the river was obviously seen as necessary to gather votes in that area; to an extent the same is true of the line east from the Plaza.

But what is really needed is a regional plan, one that links together the central city and all its suburbs on both sides of the state line with expanded bus routes and light rail. Unfortunately, the light-rail proponents got the cold shoulder from Johnson County leaders who can find no broad support for contributing to such plans. That's an oversight that will need to be corrected before we can have any hope of solving the problem.

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