I recently coached a young person new to driving as she steered down the straight Interurban Road. The car glided across the Sharp’s Station Bridge across the Platte River. “Did you know this used to be a streetcar route you could ride between Kansas City, St. Joseph and Excelsior Springs?” I asked her. She shook her head “no” and kept her focus on the wheel and the road. It’s tempting to say that most young people have never seen a streetcar or a light rail passenger car. But actually it would be more true to say many people of all ages native to Platte County have never or rarely seen them. The Interurban Road is a ghost of the early 1900s. When you look at Kansas City struggling with mass transit and working to get a starter route built from Downtown to Union Station, now under construction, you marvel that the city once had a system and spokes went out to the suburbs or even other cities. But they went broke or became financial burdens so they went away. Money is still the problem, along with traveler preferences. Affordable automobiles and the freedom of the road changed everything. But now traffic-choked highways, unaffordable autos and high gas prices are changing things back, or at least creating a longing for the option. A story Monday in The Kansas City Star outlined discussions by Kansas City North, Kansas City and the Mid-America Regional Council to extend the city’s light rail system north of the Missouri River. This is a topic over the years where it has been anybody south of the river to get excited about extending mass transit north. The thinking by some, especially in Platte County, is that light rail to the Kansas City International Airport and along the I-29 corridor would be useful and cost effective. Cost effectiveness however is very uncertain, while high cost is certain. For now, officials are talking about simply how to get the rail across the river into North Kansas City and that’s a positive considering past attitudes. One estimate cited in The Star’s story is $100 million just to get the rail partway into NKC. The old town built originally by meat packers has more industry than residents. But residents are on the hook for costs connected with getting rail to their city. Property owners would benefit, no doubt. Special taxing districts for the city are being discussed. The possibilities of federal grants are floated, but not optimistically. Light rail questions now may be focused in southern Clay County. But Platte County will never have light rail unless they get the system across the river. The passenger rails may never cross the river if people throughout Platte and Clay counties do not express interest and a willingness to ride someday. My guess is that the tracks won’t be laid until we’re willing to support a special transit tax. It’s easy for me to talk about mass transit and hard to act. I’ve never ridden on a Kansas City Area Transportation Authority bus. I have looked at the schedules, but I’ve yet to book as I was not optimistic about timing. My own hands on the wheel seem more certain. Yet my vehicles are getting the life driven out of them in commutes to Midtown KC. My mind is getting more open. Somehow, though, light rail seems slicker and faster with less stops than buses. Buses share roads with cars and trucks and stoplights and interchanges. Those are places where wrecks occur and the flashing police car lights and blocked lanes slow things to a crawl or for a bad wreck halt flow. That’s probably one reason drivers don’t jump to riding buses, they’re not optimistic about anything better. I’m certain I’ll never board light rail at a Platte County station as a work commuter due to my advancing years and the decades it takes for any progress. I’m not certain our children will ride. But I think the grandchildren will press little digital fare cards as they board, flip on their advanced versions of things like Google glasses and zip about the city. Maybe they will even converse among one another as they ride. The sheer novelty of being with people rather than staring at screens might lure riders as much as cost savings and convenience. Platte County is celebrating a 175th anniversary. I sometimes wonder what we take for granted now, like cars, will seem a novel antiquity? Will they view cars like we view the horse and buggy? Will they drive V-8 pickup trucks around the Platte County Fairgrounds in Tracy just to show people what they sounded like? Clip clop, probably so.
Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area with his family, may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.