Jackson County and the Union Pacific Railroad Company (UP) have reached an agreement crucial to the potential development of a commuter rail system and expansion of trails in the county.
Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders and UP Chief Executive Officer John Koraleski have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) giving the county the no-cost option to purchase more 20 miles of UP rail corridors running through Raytown, Lee's Summit, Kansas City and Independence. After Sanders announced the agreement during the Monday, February 24 County Legislative meeting, Independence Mayor Don Reimal called the potential acquisition of these corridors "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we need to take advantage of."
The memorandum calls for the county to acquire 15.5 miles of the old Rock Island Line stretching from the Truman Sports Complex through Raytown and Lee's Summit. This corridor, in addition to being a potential route for commuter rail, could serve as the primary connection from Kansas City to the Katy Trail, the hiking and biking path across Missouri. The Rock Island Corridor was one of six key transportation corridors selected as part of the Mid-America Regional Council’s Creating Sustainable Places Initiative.
Also included in the agreement is a 3.5-mile trek of the Pixley Spur Line extending eastward from near the Independence Amtrak station. In addition, the MOU would allow the county to take ownership of the Independence Power & Light spur, a 1.9-mile corridor from Lake City to the Independence Power & Light generating station at 23rd and Truman Road.
"Regional rail has been a concept that is of great interest to the people in this community," Sanders said. "Today, with this agreement between the county and Union Pacific Railroad commuter rail becomes a possibility for the citizens of Jackson County."
Sanders stressed that the memorandum entails no financial risk to county taxpayers, should the county and Union Pacific not reach a binding sales agreement for Jackson County to purchase the rail corridors for $59.9 million.
"This is a wonderful example of cooperation [between the county and Union Pacific] to sign off a deal that doesn't cost a dime to have the option to purchase, which is very unusual," said County Legislator Bob Spence (6th District).
County Legislator Greg Grounds (5th District) echoed Spence's assessment, stating, "You usually have to pay for the option. If the option expires, you lose that money, so we're getting a freebie."
The agreement includes the potentiality for Union Pacific to finance the county's purchase of the property, spreading out payments over several years.
Sanders and his staff have kept the area's Congressional representatives updated throughout the county's negotiations with Union Pacific. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver's office, Sanders noted, has indicated "it is not unrealistic to think that a federal grant" might be acquired to cover the full $59.9 million purchase price.
A Bargain Price
$59.9 million represents a significant drop in what Sanders said was Union Pacific's original asking price of $120 million for only the Rock Island Line. He was impressed with Union Pacific's willingness to not "drive a much harder bargain" and to eventually offer the county the additional "rail miles" for less than half that initial $120 million figure.
"What stuck me in sitting down with Jack Koraleski was his interest in looking at a commuter rail plan that works for Jackson County, works for Kansas City, works for this entire region," said Sanders. "The bottom line was obviously secondary. Union Pacific was not looking at this from a profit-center perspective."
An Engine For Economic Development
Reimal and fellow Eastern Jackson County Mayor David Bower of Raytown described developing mass transit as a key factor to sparking economic development in the county and Greater Kansas City region. The ability to "move people quickly and efficiently" throughout a metropolitan region is vital to attracting new businesses, Reimal said.
Lee's Summit City Manager Stephen Arbo noted that expanded trails and an extensive transit system would allow people who are unable to drive "to still be active and fully engaged in their community." The "new economic reality," Sanders pointed out, is that studies indicate younger workers want to live in metropolitan regions with vast trail systems and extensive public transportation options -- where owning a car is just one option, not a necessity. When he and other leaders received feedback after Kansas City hosted Major League Baseball's 2012 All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium, he said the "only complaint" was the inconvenience of traveling around the area.
He concluded, "This is the type of thing, moving forward on mass transit, that keeps Kansas City and our region on the map for more opportunities like the All-Star Game and for additional economic development."