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Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders puts his energy and his reputation into an unlikely commuter-rail plan

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Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders sees Omaha in his nightmares.

He dreads the day that he and his family visit Nebraska's largest city and board a train to get around, thanks to a big pile of money delivered by the U.S. government.

And it's not just Omaha that keeps Sanders awake. It happens when he imagines rail projects in Denver and Indianapolis, both subsidized by his federal income taxes. Meanwhile, his hometown is stuck in the Bus Age. To live here is to wonder if a city father made a pact with a devil that invested heavily in tire companies.

Sanders wants the bad dreams to end. As he sees it, the federal government may dole out between $30 billion and $50 billion for rail transit in the next year. Then the grants will dry up, as Washington tries to reckon the national debt. The next federal transit bill represents one last orgy before the Viagra runs out. Sanders wants the region to join the fun.

"Either we are in line to receive some of these dollars," he says, "or we are not in line to receive some of these dollars."

He is addressing a group of lunch-digesting Rotarians at the Drumm Farm Golf Club in Independence, and dispensing a shortened version of the plan that he has spent months promoting in conference rooms and union halls. Speaking at his trademark 200-words-a-minute clip, he describes the concept that he calls "regional rapid rail," a plan that would take advantage of Kansas City's underused and abandoned rail lines to connect residential areas, jobs and attractions.

It's a tantalizing proposal. The 134-mile system crosses the state line, puts Union Station back to work and delivers Chiefs fans to within 600 feet of Arrowhead Stadium. Those $110 cab rides from KCI to Lee's Summit? They'll seem downright insane from the comfort of a diesel-powered railcar.

When he rolled out the concept last fall, he said the federal government would cover the entire $1 billion capital cost of the project. Over time, reality has worn down the optimistic shine of Sanders' presentation. He acknowledges today that residents may need to come up with a 20-percent match in funds.

At Drumm Farm, however, he holds tight to the idea that Kansas City has been transit-starved for so long, the feds might cover the full bill.

"Frankly, a billion bucks is a drop in the bucket compared to what they've done to fund transit plans all throughout America," he says. "Our plan is very competitive. Our request is, 'We don't want a local match. We think we deserve these dollars back in the Greater Kansas City area.'"

The federal government, though, doesn't think any rail project "deserves" full funding. Federal grants typically cover 50 to 60 percent of costs, even on more humble bus projects. In addition to the local match in capital costs, area taxpayers would have to kick in a subsidy to operate commuter trains, much as the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority relies on the sales tax to run the buses.

Such disheartening details rarely make their way into Sanders' spiel. That's why the pitch works, even for a group of Crown Vic-driving Rotarians. He talks about rail's potential to entice relocating businesses. And he makes it sound as though construction could start tomorrow, as if all that's left to do is name the whistle stops.

"They've engineered this down to the spike," he says of TranSystems, the Kansas City consulting company that helped design his vision.

Still, prospective train conductors have time to polish their résumés and cleanse their urine. The county only recently completed its application for a grant to merely study parts of the plan. The study would weigh the benefits of a commuter rail line in Jackson County along Interstate 70, with a branch to Lee's Summit.

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