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Arrested Development

A professional light rail basher is headed to Kansas City.

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From city to city, at least two things are sure to occur as a government-led light rail election approaches: The sun will rise in the morning, and transportation consultant Wendell Cox will materialize out of thin -- or smoggy -- air.

Things are no different in Kansas City, where the self-employed transportation consultant from Belleville, Illinois, has said he will surface for at least one day before the August 7 election to campaign against the city's light rail plan. In the past, Cox has traveled to such cities as Phoenix, Seattle, St. Louis, Denver, Salt Lake City and Austin to damn the very concept of light rail. "There is nothing you can do with it," he says. "I don't care how many rail lines you build; there is no evidence anywhere in the country that anything you do with rail is going to make any difference whatsoever."

It's a strange position for a man who played an integral role in the formation of Los Angeles' light rail system, but then Cox himself has become a testy issue in light rail initiative after light rail initiative nationwide.

As a member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission in 1980, Cox says, he penned the amendment that allowed for funding of the area's light rail and subway system. But by the middle of the decade, he says, he changed his mind on light rail when the numbers showed ridership far below what civic leaders had promised. In 1985, he founded Wendell Cox Consultancy, a firm through which he has authored numerous articles and studies contending again and again that the construction of more highways and other automobile-based infrastructures has greater economic and environmental benefits than building light rail. That position has come under attack, if for no other reason than some of those studies were funded by organizations such as the American Highway User's Alliance, whose members profit from road construction and gasoline sales.

"There's a cadre of fellows, Wendell and two or three others, who kind of roam the country, killing transit initiatives," says Ron Thorstad, a Colorado-based engineer who consulted on light rail plans in Denver and Dallas before working on the Kansas City plan. "That's kind of what they do for a living. They show up in all of these cities supporting the opposition. It's very typical.

"Frankly, they've never bothered me much," Thorstad continues. "I know those guys. In all the cities we work, they show up. So we're prepared, we know what their arguments are going to be, we know the kind of nonsense that they're going to put up."

Those feelings, Cox says, go both ways. "They're the same players that come in and build light rail, anyway. I respect the people on the other side. I'm happy to debate them. We run into each other all the time in these cities."

Cox not only refutes the effects of light rail, particularly with regard to economic development, but also offers a host of theories that challenge the light rail movement at some basic tenets. He insists that sprawl is good, the environment is healing and few drivers will ditch their cars for public transit. Some of Cox's light rail views:

· On reducing suburban sprawl: "Why do we want to reduce sprawl? I realize that reducing sprawl is like motherhood and apple pie, but there's no reason why anybody should be concerned with sprawl, quite frankly, especially in Kansas City. There's no problem being caused by it. Traffic is less because of it. Local air pollution is less because of it. And beyond that, even if you didn't like sprawl, light rail wouldn't make any difference."

· On automobile-caused pollution: "In the long run, pollution's going away. Right now, we've got the hybrid cars that Toyota and Honda are producing. Within five years, all the manufacturers are going to produce them. Air pollution from mobile sources, at least from cars, will be a thing of the past in twenty years."

· On his opponents: "The only thing light rail does do is make a lot of consultants and a lot of engineering firms a lot of money, which is frankly what this is all about."

At least one Cox appearance has already been confirmed. KCPT Channel 19's roundtable program "Kansas City Week in Review" will air its light rail discussion on Friday, August 3, at 7:30 p.m. and repeat it the following Sunday at 1 p.m. According to the show's moderator, Nick Haines, an interview with Cox will be taped and played on the show. "I am so gung-ho about having him on," Haines says, adding that the program will try to find another national panelist to counter Cox's position. According to Ann E. Bus, a communications specialist working with the Citizens for Light Rail campaign, the group has suggested Lyndon Henry, a light rail advocate from Austin, Texas.

"I would say Wendell Cox could be beat on any level if he's honest," Bus says. "He's a paid hired gun."

That reputation doesn't bother Citizens Against Rail Plan spokesman Mark Esping. He says the group's members decided to hire Cox because they wanted a consultant who could step into the ring with professional light rail advocates and pound it out. (However, group members might support a different rail plan.) "I had to make myself an expert on the issue because the city wouldn't give me the information," Esping says. "[But] I'm still just a homeowner who had to read up."

In the past, Cox has focused on statistics that show the cost-effectiveness per person of a light rail system for an entire metropolitan population. He contends that it would be less costly to lease a luxury car to all new transit riders than to build the $793 million rail line. But that argument misses the part of a transit system, light rail proponents say, that is designed to move a large concentration of people at peak traffic times and spur development interests in the long run. "Debating these projects with numbers is silly," Thorstad says. "We've got to have them, we've got to have the numbers, we've got to have the facts and figures, but I can paint any picture you'd like me to paint with the numbers. Ultimately, it's a policy decision about what you want your city to be."

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