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      11-30-06  
   

Presentation converts alderman
Parkville leader now favors second rail
track south of English Landing

by Stacy Wiedmaier
Landmark reporter

At least one important mind was swayed as the result of a citizen-driven meeting held Tuesday night to discuss a second railroad line that could soon grace the streets of downtown Parkville.

Property owners, residents, and local merchants gathered to discuss the proposed addition of Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s (BNSF) second train track through downtown.

This meeting, held at the American Legion building, was organized by residents Tom Hutsler, Dave Williams, and Paul and Rhonda Doyle. City officials had no part in this informational meeting, but instead residents took it into their own hands to inform the public. The meeting converted at least one city official, alderman Jim Brooks, into switching his opinion on where a second track should be located.

The city of Parkville has discussed multiple options and has not made an official decision, although time is quickly running out. BNSF and the city were able to narrow down the proposals to three.

Option 1 is to place the second track approximately 25 feet south of the existing track. Option 2 would mean both tracks will be relocated south of the Farmer’s Market and English Landing Development area. Hutsler gave over an hour’s presentation on Option 2 at the meeting, complete with an artist’s rendering of the proposed project. Hutsler owns the English Landing development, so he has a vested interest in the topic.

“The safety and welfare of our residents is our main concern,” Hutsler said. “When you really look at it, Option 2 solves a lot of the problems. It has the least impact on the park.”

Option 3, which details both tracks would be placed directly in the midst of English Landing Park. This would disturb the trails, playground, and soccer field areas. Hutsler also stated how he felt about Option 1 and the ramifications which would be sure to follow.

“If they place the new track 25 feet away from the existing track, eventually they will go ahead and place a third track in the middle too,” he said.

Safety issues were discussed among the crowd, such as the traffic tie-ups downtown when trains pass through. Hutsler noted the average length of time a train takes to pass through town is between three and five minutes. With 80 trains passing each day, he calculated that is over six hours of Main Street being tied up where cars are at a standstill.

Two Ward 1 Aldermen, Jim Brooks and Deborah Butcher, were present when Hutsler made accusations speculating the city has been negotiating with BNSF behind closed doors in violation with the Sunshine Law.

“We must work together on this project, the railroad, city, and the residents,” Hutsler said. “This is not a behind closed doors issue for the city to do alone. We asked them a year ago to keep this project out in the open. If the city had been open about this deal, everyone wouldn’t be so confused about what’s going on.”
Butcher immediately raised her hand for comment.

“You need to realize that not everything the city does can be open to the public, for many reasons,” Butcher said. “It will compromise our negotiating process if we hold everything out in the open. We held open forums to educate everyone on the three options months ago, but a limited number of people came to these sessions. We have done our part to reach out to the community. I feel like people didn’t like the city’s approach to the issues, so now they want something new offered.”

Hutsler stated there was nothing the city could discuss behind closed doors which the residents did not know about already. He accused the aldermen present of encouraging the residents to get involved in the issue, but giving them no chance to do this.

“There’s a perception being put forth right now that we’re negotiating behind closed doors,” Brooks said. “I do encourage the citizen’s involvement instead of blasting the city. It’s simply not the case that we’re meeting secretly.”

On an earlier occasion, Parkville’s City Administrator Joe Turner described the process in which the city is negotiating with BNSF in private.

“We have spoken in private with BNSF, I was there with other staff members,” Turner said. “The things we talked about most were the needs that will have to take place when this second track is put in, wherever it is placed. Trees will need to be removed and power lines possibly rerouted, things like that. The legal issues with our two lawyers are always done in private, of course. When it comes time for the actual contract negotiations, that has to be in a public meeting with the mayor and aldermen there to vote.”

Turner said no official deadline has been set for a decision, although he has heard verbal agreements from both parties that construction may start as early as the summer of 2007. As for the Sunshine Law allegations, he called that “a sensitive issue.”

“Here’s what it all comes down to. It’s not that we don’t want the public to know what we’re discussing, but we don’t want the other party to know what we want to negotiate,” Turner said.

Hutsler said during his presentation for Option 2 that moving the tracks south will be hard to do, but it can be done if a full time city employee can work on researching possible grants available.

“The city needs to find grants and funding, because it is out there for us,” Hutsler said. “We just need to find a senator or someone in Washington who can help.”

Hutsler has estimated the cost of Option 2 at $4 million. Butcher responded to the contrary, that the city staff has been searching for possible grants and have not found a suitable one.

“Even Kit Bond told us there are no funded grants out there, so it’s not an option,” said Butcher adamantly.

A chart and handouts of both pros and cons for Option 2 were passed out, while residents discussed how disappointed they were in the public educational forums hosted by the city last September. Although the aldermen explained how phone calls and fliers were sent to residents about the meetings held several times throughout the day, complaints arose from residents who said they were unaware of the meetings.

“I went to the city’s open forum and it was pure chaos,” Parkville resident Dave Williams said. “There was no scheduled presentation, and everyone from the city gave me different answers when I asked questions. The city’s meetings weren’t done correctly and I learned nothing. In fact, it confused me more than I was before I came. Altogether, the meeting was an abortion. It would have been useful to have a railroad official there.”

Butcher stated how the surveys conducted at the city’s open forum, through the mail, and at city hall overwhelmingly agreed by 90 percent that Option 1 was the best answer. Hutsler then shared how his focus group conducted their own surveys, 123 of them, which were in favor of Option 2. One man in the crowd even stood up to announce how he had participated in both the cities and Hutsler’s survey, changing his original opinion and eventually siding with Option 2.

Hutsler convinced at least one person at the meeting who was not already a supporter of Option 2, and it was a city official.

“This has been a great presentation because Option 2 has never been depicted this clearly,” said Brooks. “I’ll come right out and say it, you’ve converted me. I see now how the parkway and tracks can work together. I think the cost estimates are way low, but I see some merit in this.”

After the meeting concluded, Butcher said she felt differently from Brooks on the subject. The fact that Hutsler gathered his own group to provide this open forum, despite the city having done so already, was a sore spot for Butcher.

“I am personally offended there are accusations that we are meeting behind closed doors,” Butcher said. “It’s a difficult situation for us, but we must decide soon. The city has done extensive research and spent multiple hours on this project. The way a democracy should work is when the city presents the correct information for the residents at their own meetings.

“We have a great deal of reservations about these options, and we held our forums already. We have tried hard to work with Tom (Hutsler.) I feel like he gave a lot of false percentages this evening about Option 2. Tonight was his point of view, and the information is what he has gleaned for himself.”

Hutsler’s enthusiasm throughout the Option 2 presentation was knowledgeable, but residents from opposing sides still disagreed. Hutsler said this decision will be made not only for the current residents, but “50 years from now our ancestors will thank us for this.”

Another resident in the audience felt the plan was well depicted, but still questioned its functionality.
“I think your plan is brilliant Tom, but it might not be do-able.”