Jackson County, Missouri: Visting Portland is a "Smart Move"

This week an article in the Independence, MO daily newspaper with the headline County Keeps Rail Plan on Track, informed readers that “officials are trying to figure out which ideas from cities across the country are the best to borrow.” The same week, transportation authorities in Jackson County, Missouri, convened a series of workshops to get a sense of what locals think about the land use and economic development potential related to a proposed commuter rail line along the region's highly trafficked and increasingly congested interstate highways. Meanwhile, one of the municipalities in the corridor allocated $18,000 to a region-wide outreach program intended to educate and engage the regions’s auto-centric populace in the transit planning process.

It would appear that transit has found some traction in Missouri once again.

Jackson County and the greater Kansas City region has a rich transit history (which you can read accounts of here and, of course, here). As the story goes, until the 1960s, Kansas City itself had one of the leading transit systems in America. Alas, like many American cities in the post war period, the rise of the automobile and the spread of suburbanization (read : white flight) had a major impact and the rail lines were dismantled. Currently one of the most decentralized regions in the country, local transit advocates have been working for decades to keep their region from being regarded as the “Los Angeles of the Midwest.” Now local leaders like Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders and Kansas City Mayor Sly James are listening. They acknowledge that automobile dependency and urban sprawl have taken a toll on their region and are supporting transit-- and the development that oftentimes comes along with it--to help make theirs a more equitable, economically thriving, and environmentally sustainable place.

[Note: for those of you unfamiliar with the place, you can get a primer on the whos, whats and wheres of Kansas City (the city) vs Kansas City (the region) here. Since we’re talking about regional transit, you can assume we’re referring to the latter.]

Currently,  a partnership comprised of Jackson County, Missouri; Kansas City, Missouri; the regional MPO (MARC); and the urban transit authority (KCATA) is working to develop and implement the Smart Moves transit plan for the region. Three projects are currently in the preliminary research phases: two suburban commuter rail lines and one urban streetcar. Given that things like public participation in transit design, regional transit planning, complex public-private partnerships and interjurisdictional collaboration are widely touted as what makes Portland’s transit system work, it's no surprise project leaders looked to Portland during their FTA-funded Alternatives Analysis process. As part of their study, advisors on the commuter rail projects toured Portland with First Stop last week to meet with local experts and ride the rails. According to their feedback, they were quite impressed --and surprised-- by what they heard and saw.

At the outset of their day, the delegation peppered local experts with technical questions like “What do your partnership agreements look like?” and “How do you balance design ideals with ridership demands?” But by the end of the day, questions like “What should we do to avoid the mistakes you’ve made?” and “What would you do if you were in our shoes?” prompted presenters to share the wisdom gained from their experiences over three decades of transit planning and development.

During a presentation at ZGF, architect Charles Kelley explained that the keys to Portland’s transit success lie in it’s strong intergovernmental relationships, the relationship between policy and practice, placemaking programs that support both ridership and neighborhoods, strong public-private partnerships, a culture of civic engagement and... stewardship. “Stewardship?” inquired one of the visitors. “What do you mean by stewardship?” Thinking his explanation would relate to protection of our natural environment, I was surprised when Kelley replied, without missing a beat, “It’s about a vision, a shared understanding of who’s responsible for the future.”

This idea was echoed throughout the day, including during a ride up to OHSU on the Aerial Tram. When one of the delegation members remarked, “The people of Kansas City would never let us a build something like this,” one local expert pointed out that the people in Portland weren’t always behind the tram project, either, but local leadership stayed focused on the larger vision for the South Waterfront and worked to bring it to fruition. This sentiment was reinforced at a meeting with Metro Councilor Rex Burkeholder, who shared that an integrated, long-term vision is the key to withstanding the sturm and drang of local political cycles.

Since they are planning rail to the suburbs, a ride on the West Side Blue Line MAX was essential. From the costs of tunneling beneath Washington Park to sometimes tricky relationship between cities like Hillsboro and Portland, to the pros and cons of New Urbanist developments like Orenco Station, former project planing director for TriMet, Phil Selinger, shared what worked and what didn’t along Portland’s inaugural attempt at light rail transit. But nothing was so eye opening along the tour as the group’s visit to The Round at Beaverton Center, where they talked with Don Mazziotti, Community Development Director for the City of Beaverton, who explained in no uncertain terms what happens when developments go wrong. Mazziotti encouraged them not to take things at face value: projects that look economically viable might  be more a mixed-bag when assessed through a variety of critical lenses. “Look for opportunities that already exist and be willing to resist prevailing politics,” he encouraged. The visitors were surprised by his candor: “Folks are so frank here. I think we're learning more from hearing about your mistakes than your successes!”

The delegation was excited when they finally made it to the Beaverton Transit Center for a ride on WES Commuter Rail. Although the alternative analysis process mandates that they must evaluate all reasonable alternatives in a given corridor, Kansas City’s leadership has been set for some time on the idea of building DMU (diesel powered) commuter lines, similar to WES, that run along existing railway tracks. Kelly and Selinger shared their experiences with WES, including  the challenges the project had faced and cautioned that heavy rail doesn’t necessarily spawn the type of TOD as other types of transit rail projects. The delegation walked around the Tigard WES station, experiencing firsthand the relationship between the train and its surroundings. Comments like “It’s much bigger and louder than I thought it would be...” were not uncommon.

Later, the delegation shared the day’s experiences over dinner with sustainability guru Dennis Wilde, Gerding Edlen. Yes, they acknowledged, Portland has many tools to offer Kansas City, such as market analysis, site analysis, forecasting models and ridership analysis. But perhaps more notable, they observed, were the ways that hearing the stories and discussing projects with folks who’d been involved actually shifted their perceptions about their own rail project. Wilde suggested they take what they’d learned a step further, urging them not to adhere to a TOD vision just because some rail tracks already run through a place. Engage stakeholders, he advised, not simply to get them to agree to an already developed idea but ask their opinions and engage them as your own local experts. Furthermore, he cautioned delegation members against the “if you build it, they will come” mentality, encouraging them to work within their local context rather than trying to change it. “Base your vision for the future on the values that already exist in your place.”

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