Truly public transportation

William Newsome has a million-dollar smile. From downtown to Bannister Mall, he flashes that smile at every customer from the seat of the bus he drives for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA).

Tall, lean, and strong, Newsome commands a presence. A driver for the KCATA for five years, he has chosen the Troost route for the past three years. (Drivers can elect to change routes every three months.) Regular riders seem genuinely glad to see him. First-time riders on the Troost bus and those who rarely ride buses meet Newsome and soon find themselves aboard a welcome wagon for public transportation in Kansas City. His attitude toward people and public transportation is what endears him to his riders and helps make his job pleasant.

On a run two days after Christmas, Newsome disarms and comforts several riders who have bad attitudes. He easily quiets and guides a homeless man who is talking to himself, and he cheers a woman traveling with nine children.

“My goodness,” he says, looking in his rearview mirror after the woman takes her seat. “Nine kids. She’s got to have some backbone, some attitude to be able to move all those kids.”

Newsome never calls his bus an instrument of “mass transit” but always refers to his job as public transportation. “Serving the public is what public transportation should do,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of resources here in Kansas City. KCATA does the best job it can. But in the end, they just don’t have enough money to make public transportation work the way it should — and the way citizens deserve.”

Newsome looks up again at Tanya Sharpe, guardian of the nine youngsters. She sits in the middle of the bus, surrounded by the crowd of well-behaved children as a toddler in a stroller is gently rocked in the aisle. Three of the children are hers; the rest are cousins visiting from Topeka. They are on the way to Bannister Mall to return a few ill-fitting Christmas presents.

Sharpe also has a great smile that not only shows she has a good attitude but also a great sense of humor. She doesn’t have a car and uses public transportation frequently to get to work, take children to after-school activities, and to shop. “I like the bus,” Sharpe says. “It’s not so bad. Especially when there isn’t a car that would fit all these people anyway.”

Across the aisle, Georgia Hunt chats with other riders and watches the cityscape speed by. “I don’t have a car,” she says without even an inkling of bitterness. “I do everything on the bus, and sometimes it just isn’t convenient. But you craft your life around that, which isn’t so bad. There are even times I get on the bus just to get out of the house awhile and be around other people.

“Sometimes the bus gets real crowded,” Hunt says. “That’s because we should have more buses running more often. People mostly don’t mind. But I don’t shop in my neighborhood (near downtown) because there really isn’t anything there, and what’s there is so expensive. I get out to Hypermart (87th and I-435) about once a week or two weeks.”

Without a car and on a limited income, Connie Stokes has to ride the bus but likes it all the same. “You get to meet and know everybody on the bus, the regular riders anyway,” she says. “Many of the others you see and just know there are plenty of nice people out here. Even if I had a car, it wouldn’t make sense to drive it all the time.”

Stokes is such a regular, long-term bus rider that she’s filled with stories about other riders, to whom she waves and calls by name as they get on the bus. “There’s Jack,” she says. “He has been sick. I know because when I don’t see him on the bus for a while, there is something wrong.” Stokes even reveals a regular rider’s perspective on Newsome. For the past three years, she says, she has spent hours chatting with Newsome when his bus goes through slow periods. “He is really the greatest guy,” says Stokes. “Not all bus drivers are like him. Most of them are nice, a few are bad, but he is the best.”

Such praise means a lot in a notoriously insufficient KC public transportation system. The bus drivers — the people like Newsome who meet the public every day — deal with complaints of not enough service and service that is too slow, too scattered, and too dependent upon the whim of business and political leadership. Moreover, many not using public transportation hold buses in low esteem — generally those people are not part of the public that patronizes what one devoted rider calls “big blue and white limousines with all of life on board.”

But the tide is changing as serious discussions of public transportation take hold in Kansas City. The solutions to the area’s transit problems may be just around the corner. According to activists, political leaders, and transit riders, one of the solutions may be the long-enigmatic light rail.

The winds of change always have to blow on Kansas City like a tornado for things to change — even then, change is painfully slow. After years as a place to cut funding in the name of thrifty governing, transit has become a front-burner issue for city planners, elected and appointed officials, and even business leaders.

The process of transit’s emergence as a planning and commercial issue began in the early 1990s when transportation options for a renovated Union Station began to be discussed. Activist Clay Chastain’s efforts to give the station some of its old life back with rail and bus connections, and even an aerial tramway to the Liberty Memorial, started a fire that only now burns brightly.

After being rebuffed on Union Station by civic and elected leaders, Chastain began an effort to put light rail and a systematic approach to public transportation before Kansas Citians. Chastain was somewhat prescient, even if business leaders did not like his methods. Dallas, Denver, Houston, and St. Louis all have initiated light rail systems while Kansas City cut bus service. In those cities with light rail and other fixed-guideway systems, once-ailing bus systems — similar to KCATA in Kansas City, Mo.; Johnson County Transit; and Wyandotte County’s The Bus — have been bolstered.

Two ballot initiatives Chastain pushed suffered defeat before voters. Voting wards that would reap immediate benefits from light rail and improved public transit, however, overwhelmingly voted for the proposals. Although this may highlight the difference between urban and suburban perspectives, the votes did not put light rail and public transportation to rest, as some elected and business leaders had hoped. Instead, the proposals provided fodder for further discussion of transit issues.

“What Clay did went a long way to making light rail happen,” says Steve Baru, a Johnson County stockbroker and chair of the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club. “His efforts are responsible for making it possible for something to happen in next 24 months in Kansas City. Clay’s propositions may have failed, but they indirectly had a positive influence on the discussion we are having today.”

KCATA Director Dick Davis believes that Chastain has to be given credit for keeping transportation “on the front burner. Even when I debated him in public forums on light rail, I told him that he should be lauded for that. Some of the ideas he expressed I did not agree with. But jeez, he kept it in front of folks to such an extent that even The Kansas City Star jumped on the bandwagon to support his proposal.”

Ron McLinden of the Kansas City Area Smart Growth Alliance and the Regional Transit Alliance ( kctransit.htm) says, “Clay’s vision goes far beyond what most leaders are willing to buy into. But until Chastain, public transit was a low priority in Kansas City. There were always discussions of how transit was on the decline, how we have a car-dependent city. But that talk was easy. Until the past couple of years, we had an ample labor force. Getting people to suburbs for low-paying jobs wasn’t such a problem.”

Joe Perry is project manager for the Kansas City, Mo., Central Business Corridor Study, a joint effort of KCATA and the city to make recommendations for a light rail or fixed-guideway transit spine in the urban core. He believes Chastain was part of momentum already building toward a more favorable view of public transportation.

“I don’t know what Chastain’s exact effect was,” he says. “But obviously many things drew attention to transit. Commuter rail in Johnson County put a face on transit for suburbanites, for people to think that there is a transit option. It began really, coincidentally, to be talked about in the press and in public forums at the same time that congestion increased.”

As air quality in the metro area worsens, suburbanites are slowly getting restless behind the wheels of their cars. City planners in suburban areas are also realizing what their urban counterparts have known for years: Sprawl is inefficient, encourages the duplication of infrastructure and services, and in the end is a waste of public and private funds.

“There is a hostility toward public transit common in Midwest,” says architect Kevin Klinkenberg. “Since we got away from the streetcar system, the bus system, universally, is viewed by most people as something poor people do, not something you choose to do.

“For transit to be successful, it has to have predictability. Users have to have destinations, and you have to have things you can walk to at those destinations. Kansas City has very few of those destinations. The advantage of bus systems over streetcars was once thought to be the ability to meet demand changes by changing routes. It sounds logical, but you never know where the damn routes are. I live in Midtown near bus lines, but unless you use the system every day, you can’t really decipher how to use the bus system well.

“There are funding problems also. The KCATA wants more consistent and more frequent routes, but they have no funding for that kind of thing.”

Although lack of funding for transit is a lament frequently heard, McLinden says, “Of the dozen or more cities in our size category, we are at the bottom of most measures of public transit. We could triple the transit expenditures per capita and be at average.

“At the same time, we are blessed or cursed with one the best freeway systems in the country. The irony is that in the last couple of years we have collectively realized that sprawl won’t do it for much of our population. Decentralization of the population means the same for employment: a lot of $7- and $8-an-hour jobs going begging. People are willing to work for that but can’t get there. The way out is to improve public transit and re-emphasize economic development in the city.”

And it’s not that people won’t use public transport, Newsome says, but that they don’t have any choice but to drive if they can. “It can get real crowded on this bus, which just points out the problem we have with public transportation in Kansas City,” he says. “There aren’t enough buses running this route. There aren’t enough buses running many of the routes.”

Even KCATA officials say that lack of frequency is one of the main problems with bus service in Kansas City. “While we have not cut routes very often,” says Davis, “we downsized from 1982 to 1996, and most of that effort was running buses less frequently.”

Last year saw a major shift in KCATA fortunes. The agency found itself with new money from federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds. The KCATA proposed nine routes, all of which the city accepted. The routes include the new Downtowner bus as well as a route from Blue Springs to downtown. In April, routes from Belton and Lee’s Summit will begin to run into Overland Park.

But even with the shot-in-the-arm federal funds, according to city officials and transit advocates, Kansas City’s transit system is still the lowest-funded transit system of its size in the country. “Also, in the overall picture,” says Marvin Shackelford, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287, which represents KCATA drivers, “the service was originally there. You can shine the apple on the outside, but if you don’t do anything about the inside, it will still be rancid. There are inner-city service problems still to be addressed, such as frequency of service.

“Years ago, federal money dropped. Some politicians wanted to cut routes to keep within the federal money that was left, and we cut back. Our expansion now is a direct reflection of more federal money. But until we get funding and personnel back in sync — with 15 minutes between buses — just in the way we fell down, it will take time to get back up.”

Routes running from downtown to south Kansas City, such as the Country Club route down Wornall and Ward Parkway, run with some frequency. Others that connect downtown to suburbs, such as the Roanoke from downtown to Raytown, and the North Oak and Vivion routes from downtown to the Northland, run only on the half-hour or hour. Some routes run only three or four times a day to get people to work in the morning and back home in the evening — making the buses worthless for pleasure or shopping trips and good only for limited commuting.

In a city whose priorities have been on highway spending and on continuing sprawl, says Rick Zbinden of the Kansas City Area Smart Growth Alliance, “spending money on transit is the antithesis of roadways. While many cities are moving toward more compact, pedestrian friendly development, we are not going in that direction. I don’t think this region is acting in favor of transit. There is a lot of talk right now about New Urbanism (developing with the density and services of urban areas), but we still don’t consider the kinds of development that transit requires.

“There is a transit debate, but there needs to be a land use debate that takes into consideration that transit will not work the way we are developing. Political leaders and developers argue that people wanted this kind of development because they want their cars. What we are saying is that people find themselves in this kind of development because government on all levels encourages and subsidizes it, and people have to have cars.”

Warren Erdman, CEO of Kansas City Southern Industries, says metro-wide development is spreading so far out that it’s increasingly difficult to provide public transit links to suburban areas. “We will have to couple land use with transit planning. As long as we try to chase after development with transit, it is almost a losing battle,” he says.

Zbinden points out that the business community and the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) have focused on getting people to jobs. “It’s the main reason for the chamber to want transit,” he says. “We are in a so-called economic boom and increasingly the jobs and where low-wage workers live are mismatched. Whose problem is that? The workers or the businesses locating where they are? I believe it is part of the cost of sprawl to locate away from low-wage workers.”

A person active in transit issues who did not want to be identified for this story agrees with Zbinden, pointing out that the KCATA and The Bus opened a route from the Landing Shopping Center in Kansas City, Mo., through Kansas City, Kan., to College Boulevard in Overland Park, Kan. Three buses run in the morning and afternoon, transporting 72 people per day. “The service costs $200,000 annually,” the source says. “Assuming service continues to be utilized by those same people, that is $3,000 per person. Of that, $450 comes from the fare that person pays. You can interpret that as a benefit to the wage earner or a subsidy to employer.”

McLinden says improving service to the suburbs from urban areas has a limit. “In my personal opinion, we can’t afford to have public transit chasing after jobs that have moved to suburbs,” he says.

Zbinden would like to see economic development “in areas that need more employment, which could also be along transit corridors in suburbs. People go to more places than work. If you create a system for work and not for buying groceries and visiting parks, people won’t ride, because it won’t be convenient. A system like that will fail.”

At the same time KCATA tries to meet nearly impossible expectations, considering its funding, Johnson County Transit and Wyandotte County’s The Bus are trying to figure out how to provide transit to and around their areas. And talk doesn’t move people around a sprawling city. “We have all these things going on, and Kansas City, Mo., is not doing a metro-wide comprehensive study,” says Zbinden.

Kansas City is all about talk sometimes. For nearly 30 years, for instance, various agencies studied public transit proposals, including light rail. The city is also trying to figure out how to integrate resident-inspired FOCUS recommendations for light rail in the center city with the Central Business Corridor Study. Although FOCUS seems fairly clear on the matter and public consensus for light rail seems strong, agreement on how to fund it is not.

Light rail nearly became an issue the public took from elected officials and business leaders. To get it back, keep policy changes under control, and prevent Chastain’s proposal on last November’s ballot from being taken seriously, Chastain’s opponents at city hall and in the business community funded high-profile, expensive campaigns against Chastain’s low-profile, low-budget, word-of-mouth, door-to-door campaign. His proposals were no longer flies easily swatted but real alternatives to current attitudes.

Critics of the status quo say the city also had to look as if it were doing something. Because of this, the city made promises it had to keep, even if it covered the same ground the KCATA and other agencies had for decades.

“The KCATA gave the city development department $1.3 million for a comprehensive transit study designed to find and investigate all facets of public transportation, including much-discussed light rail,” says mayor’s office spokesman Joe Serviss. “The findings of a study of that magnitude, done by real planners and people who have the knowledge to make those evaluations, will make a pretty interesting comparison of alternatives and the different directions we can go.

“From the Chamber of Commerce to people who have been involved in the last election in rapid transit program, we heard there should be some time allowed for a study to be accomplished. Other things we will have to consider later will be differing propositions, federal funding, and support for whatever we come up with.”

The Central Business Corridor Study is just now about to get under way. Results are expected in about a year.

McLinden, however, believes that Chastain’s efforts pointed out the need to get everyone on board with public transit, and the Central Business Corridor Study is Kansas City’s way of doing just that. “I don’t think it is a matter of the city wanting to take the issue from the public,” he says. “The public does not have a hold on it right now. Clay is out of sight, and no other group right now has claimed leadership on light rail. From the city’s perspective, they are following up on recommendations.”

After Chastain’s first attempt to put public pressure toward light rail failed in 1998, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and MARC teamed to study public transportation. The result was the Metropolitan Transit Initiative Demand Assessment Report (MTI). The MTI recommended that bus transportation be coordinated around bus stations that would serve as hubs. Simplified routes splashed out across the city like mini-spider webs woven together by larger strands would connect stations. Buses would arrive to deliver passengers to a bus that was ready to depart along another corridor. Passengers would supposedly not have long waits.

The MTI’s recommendations spawned a sea of change in bus transportation in Kansas City, with many of the report’s recommendations already being implemented by the KCATA. But MTI’s flaw is in its emphasis on the bus, as if it were the only way to build a transportation system.

When it comes to the Chamber of Commerce, reliance on buses is predictable. Despite public opinion favoring rail, the chamber had frowned on the KCATA effort to begin engineering (a prelude to actually breaking ground for construction) for light rail in 1997.

For years, the KCATA had held public forums, hired consultants to come up with a plan, and waited months for comment from business leaders. But the agency’s effort wasn’t strong enough to make it past skeptical elected officials and business leaders. Then Mayor Emanuel Cleaver made his 1997 “frou frou” comment about a proposed KCATA Midtown light rail route at an Eggs and Issues breakfast in what was reported to be in an offhand manner. Shortly afterward, a few high-profile business leaders killed any hope the KCATA’s plan would ever come to fruition, if for no other reason than it seemed they did not have a guiding hand in the process.

Public transportation supporters were aghast that something planned for so long could fail so easily. But historically the KCATA was a place to cut funds. Neither elected officials nor business leaders took the agency seriously. Both tolerated the transit operator as a way to throw a bone to a public that believed there was a need for some form of public transit, meager as it may be.

To add insult to injury, the Chamber of Commerce then performed a study that consisted of maps with pens sent to about two dozen business leaders to highlight what they thought would be better light rail routes. The chamber reported that the business community did not support light rail because only one of the maps was returned.

Even so, the MTI reports that “although a focus on rail transit was not part of the project, the subject of light rail transit surfaced so often that the preference stated frequently for rail transit must be included in this study…. It is clear that a rail component elevates the perception of a regional transit system. Whether light rail or commuter rail, people see permanency and efficiency with rail services.”

The report states that the public doesn’t seem to be clear on the difference between light rail and commuter rail. (Light rail is short trains with light cars transporting people around a town with frequent stops; commuter rail is heavier traditional trains transporting people from outlying to urban areas.) But the MIT report also states, “The availability of rail transit, as opposed to a bus-only system, significantly increases the likelihood that the service will be used…. There is a recognition that rail transit will help Kansas City compete with other metropolitan areas in the future and can affect development patterns and support reinvestment in the central core.”

The MTI statement on rail is consistent with the recommendations that came from the FOCUS strategic planning efforts in Kansas City, Mo., and reiterates what Chastain and light rail advocates had said all along.

But it was Chastain saying it, not the chamber’s bigwigs. And as Zbinden points out, “We talk a lot about a lot of transit study, but funding for transit continues to be dismal. Funding is something tangible, and we could have had improved transit long ago. We have federal highway money in the budget that is flexible, but we spend it all on highways.”

For the past two years, public transit has moved from a nonstarter to a relatively high priority on the public agenda. In 1998, as the chamber and MARC embarked on the MTI study, area leaders were also alerted that they could get stung for air pollution violations, slowing the flow of federal highway money.

For all its weaknesses, the MTI brought forth a positive development that could make Kansas City a modern city with regard to public transportation. Because of increased interest in the traffic and air pollution mitigation aspects of public transportation, MARC and the chamber began to see the value of a residents’ public transit advocacy group that would work with decision-makers and operators to build transit. That group is the Regional Transit Alliance (RTA).

The RTA was intended to mirror Citizens for Modern Transit (CMT) (, an organization that built consensus for the St. Louis light-rail starter line that runs from East St. Louis to the northeast corner of that metro area. The rail line is an overwhelming success that resulted in expansions of transit service and increased bus ridership and brought on the evolution of a light rail line into a true rail transit system. Even once-negative suburbs now argue over who among them gets the next expansion in rail service.

In St. Louis, years of doubt and fear preceded the building of the light rail line. The CMT worked with the government, the public and business to put together a plan that would fetch the necessary federal and state funding for the system.

“The proposal passed in resounding measures,” says Klinkenberg. “But CMT did the work before to build excitement prior to the first line. They were also heavily dependent on the federal government for their money. But the line is such a success they have passed their own sales tax and are building extensions themselves — allowing them to speed up time tables without having to wait for fed funds.”

St. Louis had even more to overcome than Kansas City does. With a low-density metro area that stretches over two states, the area also had to deal with more than 110 notoriously jealous and highly competitive municipalities.

“Like CMT, an advocacy group for modern transit is needed in this town,” says Klinkenberg. “People saw Clay as being on his own, without the benefit of a coordinated effort on the part of anyone to bring it all together. The success of CMT is pushing business and elected leadership, and CMT has key people leading the charge in a city that had declining transit riders.

“With RTA (in Kansas City), it should be the same kind of thing, with people looking at the bigger picture. One problem with the last KCATA light rail effort, a few key big shots stood up and said, ‘You did not ask me, and I didn’t like it.’ The RTA is trying to get a lot of those problems out of the way in the beginning.”

Erdman, who is also former chief of staff for Sen. Kit Bond, is interim chair of the 7-month-old RTA. He believes the consensus for better transit the RTA hopes to forge will be difficult for a few to break when momentum builds.

“I lived in Washington, D.C., for 10 years,” he says. “I used the DC Metro to get to and from work and found it to be a convenient and accessible means of transportation. In addition, as co-chair of the LINCWorks Committee (of the Local Investment Commission, a resident oversight of welfare reform and implantation of welfare reform measures), I found the primary problem for many of those trying to move from welfare was lack of convenient transportation to and from work. An individual could find a job and day care and they could get skills but couldn’t find a reliable way to get to work.”

Erdman believes meeting a variety of needs will be the greatest problem in building public transit. Many low-income people have a lifestyle dictated by the bus schedule, he says, which is unacceptable. But the poor are only one constituent of a public transit system and will be best benefited if public transit serves many interests.

“One size doesn’t always fit all, and it’s no good to build a system that does not recognize that,” he says. “We will probably need multiple responses for multiple needs. We have the Central Business Corridor Study that has a fixed-path option. With Johnson County commuter rail and the MTI concept of transportation hubs, what we need to do and hope to do is get the public in dialogue.”

Moreover, discussions of transit can’t be separated from those of land use and zoning, as Zbinden has pointed out. Erdman says the focus on transit improvements should be first for those people who like to use it, matching service to need.

“But often the transit user is different from time to time,” Erdman says. “The challenge is meeting a variety of needs. What we have tried to do is meet specific needs rather than build a transit system with many in mind.

“We would like to make it possible for people thinking of buying a third car to forgo that or even get rid of the second car. We have to find ways to entice commuters off the highway, make it easy for students with urban existences, as well as for the elderly and welfare recipients.”

Leonard Graham, a consulting engineer for Taliaferro & Browne Consulting Engineers says, “Transit in Kansas City now is transit of last resort. But many would like to live in an urban zone where you have a job that might be two stops from where you live. Other cities have that, and it needs to be created in Kansas City. The central city is ideally set up for that. It is just a matter of getting it up and rolling.

“We have suburbs that are accessible to nearly everyone with enough resources, but we don’t offer quality urban living environments. This is the whole theory behind the putting something permanent in the central corridor — we build the design of a system to create quality living and working environments.”

Whatever the RTA does, board members Erdman and McLinden believe the group’s focus has to be on a multifaceted approach to public transit. As a result, RTA members believe more strongly that light rail or some sort of fixed-path or fixed guideway spine through the center of the city should be combined with buses for a comprehensive and convenient transportation system.

But the process may be slow and frustrating. After all, 30 years of study has yet to produce a light rail line, and transit in the Kansas City area declined for 20 years before an upturn emerged just two years ago. The RTA, Erdman says, will have to build consensus with meaningful public forums that do more than satisfy government requirements. The group, he says, will also have to put pressure on public officials and agencies to address the transit problem.

“It will depend on the strength of the core group,” he says. Although the RTA already has 450 members, the 23-member board will be the driving force for change. The board, says Erdman, “has strongest desire to build momentum to force action for improved transit system.”

In Sen. Bond’s office, Erdman worked on crafting federal support for St. Louis light rail. The CMT worked out how to get a starter route in place with vast amounts of public comment. Comparing the CMT and the KCATA light rail efforts, Erdman says, the KCATA probably did not have enough citizen input. The RTA, as a group, has to find public support, then press elected officials and other decision-makers.

With the creation of the RTA, MARC has shown leadership on the transit issue. But as the region’s metropolitan planning agency, MARC helps administer federal highway funding, and very little has gone to public transit in the past. But as it shows initiative, Erdman says, it may be the best agency — rather than the football-like KCATA, the suburban-minded Johnson County Transit, or Wyandotte County’s minuscule The Bus — “to take the bull by the horns. It might be more fruitful. We hope within a year’s time to hear from transit users and begin to put comprehensive improvements to work. Then we will lobby for funding.”

That funding from federal and state legislatures will make or break a system that has a fixed-path component and comprehensive connections with timely and efficient bus service. Nearly all the public officials and advocates interviewed for this story believe that fixed-path option will probably be light rail.

“Light rail will be one technology for one need of multiple needs,” says Erdman. “Light rail will fit with the use of smaller buses by the KCATA, some door-to-door transit, and para-transit (that includes van pool, small bus and taxi service). Light rail may well be one of many approaches to public transit.”

Davis says that any proposal has to be couched as an option rather than the only solution. “Instead of saying light rail is the only option,” he says. “We will probably have to present it as, ‘Here are the options, each option does this or that, here are advantages and disadvantages to each.’ But each option has liabilities and operational costs. The leadership has to come from city hall, the city council or many letters to the council. We want rail, but it is their call.”

Perry believes that some sort of fixed-guideway system, light rail or bus rapid transit represents a fixed investment. “Light rail is part of the solution to public transportation. There are inherent advantages for economic development, especially in urban areas that need redevelopment.”

Emphasis at the moment is still on bus service, Graham says, but work has begun on tying a Central Business Corridor fixed-guideway system for light rail or bus rapid transit into Johnson County commuter rail and connecting bus service.

“We are looking at the transit center concept,” he says. “We would have bus or multi-modal, para-transit, and taxi at common junctions. In any system, you have to have a choice. Right now we have only the private auto. If folks are unfortunate enough not to have an auto, they can’t get there. And it’s not just them but also every person who has an auto but chooses not to use it.

“Transit-on-demand and deviated transit are not done here, but other cities use these frequently. For instance, your bus will be linked to commuter rail or light rail that will be hooked to a transit center where you could get into a 12-passenger van that can deliver you to your front door.”

Graham says the technology and know-how exists for a comprehensive transit system including light rail. No transit system in Kansas City will work for everyone, but some areas hold opportunities for development and redevelopment that works with transit. “Even on 100 acres of plowed ground,” he says, “you can develop centered on mass transit. It certainly works in Portland, Oregon, where a light rail line stops at little villages built around transit stations.” Dense apartments stand close to transit stations, and residents can get off the train and walk home. Single-family homes stand farther out from the center, but people use para-transit or bikes to home.

“I was really concerned a couple of years ago when preliminary engineering for light rail was stopped after the ‘frou frou’ comment,” says Graham. “But in retrospect, although we lost some time, we gained public awareness. With that and the additional education we will get in the next year, we will be in a position to have a greater degree of public consensus on what we want to build than in 1997 when everything blew up.

“The other significant benefit is that transit is now on the front burner. Lots of folks, including me, will not let it slip off the burner until something gets done.”

Newsome wants to drive a light rail train. “When I go to New York or Washington,” he says, “I look at those guys, and I want to do what they are doing. The technology that can be used for public transportation is better all the time. When we get some new means of public transportation, I want to be there.”

With all the study on the light rail/fixed-path issue and more to come, Newsome may someday get to drive a train. But Zbinden points out that for any real public transit improvements to occur, leaders “with political and business clout need to step forward with a funding proposal. We have the opportunity to do a bistate funding plan with sales tax, but business leaders seem to want to spend that on other things.”

Kansas City, Mo., council member Teresa Loar thinks light rail will be part of any comprehensive transit system. “Although it is so costly, its time has probably come. Right now we are looking for a solid plan with solid funding. It’s hard for urban taxpayers to pick up the bill for suburbs and vice versa. A bistate tax would be best for mass transit. We need to do something that benefits everyone on a daily basis, and transportation is on the top of that list, since everyone sits on the freeway.

“When we look at other cities and see how they dealt with congestion and traffic problems, public transit with light rail moves a lot of people. It’s difficult to get those types of operations to pay for themselves, but we are subsidizing roads all the time.”

Meanwhile, Loar says, “Everyone will be up with proposals for a bistate tax. Everyone will want to save this or to do that — museums, sports. I think we will have to look for the most important overall issues; one of the most important is transportation.”

In addition, Loar believes the community needs to be involved but city officials also should take a look at federal officeholders and see why they have not provided any help for transit.

Getting people to multiple destinations anywhere in the city and doing it on time, says Shackelford, should be the goal of public transportation in Kansas City.

“To do this, we need to have transportation coordinated in the region. If we work hand-in-hand, it can be done. But it will take more community involvement, the city council, religious leaders, and their influence on their congregations. Businesspeople will have to be willing to give up some funds. We can’t just have the chamber speak with no commitment from them. It will be for business to say they don’t hate buses and that buses are for everyone, not just people who depend on the buses.”

Contact Patrick Dobson at 816-218-6777 or

BY PATRICK DOBSON photography by jay thornton

KCATA Director Dick Davis says two influences decimated public transportation in Kansas City. First was the National Defense Highways Act of 1956, which was a boon for car companies and encouraged the two-car family. “Pretty soon,” says Davis, “the United States was at 2 to 3 percent of the public taking public transit — the lowest in the industrial world. Kansas City, especially, became highly dependent on the automobile, making (transit) the option for the few who chose to use it, the urban poor, those who were too old to drive, and those with disabilities.”

A second reason for loss of transportation options, Davis says, is “We were the only country in the world to put freeway systems in the middle of cities. The interstate system allowed people to sprawl, making it easier to build than rebuild. In the end, it may have been too easy for us, and we are coming to a time when we will have to pay.”

And pay is what Kansas Citians and their suburban counterparts have not been doing. Generous highway funding from the federal government, with a small local and state match, made interstates and state highways — and their attendant local roads — seem easy to come by. Moreover, because of the way federal highway funding gets to states and the way the highway lobby promoted road building and car travel, the public believes federal and state gasoline taxes and license fees pay for roads in full.

The truth is, however, that government-borne expenses far exceed gasoline tax support for American roads. Government at all levels pays for medical care due to air pollution, car crashes not covered by insurance premiums, and disposal of car tires and junk cars. State and federal governments pay for pollution control, law enforcement, and American military protection of foreign oil reserves through income and excise taxes. Local and county governments subsidize free and low-cost parking in downtown areas and the cost of municipal traffic courts (which do not totally pay for themselves through traffic fines), as well as local law enforcement. People directly pay insurance premiums that increase with congestion, extra for fuel loss due to traffic congestion, and for the loss of life and wages due to car accidents. Business also chips in by paying for lost work time due to car-related injuries and congestion.

According to journalist and historian Stephen Goddard in his book Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century, “Drivers who believe their motor vehicle fees and gasoline charges equal the cost of building and maintaining the roads they drive on are misled. Actually, such fees cover only about 60 percent of the $53.3 billion that all levels of government spend each year. The remaining $21.3 billion comes from general tax revenues that state and local government assess on drivers and nondrivers alike.”

Goddard says information from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Brookings Institution, the Federal Reserve system, and the World Resources Institute suggests that Americans “pay upwards of $300 billion a year — more than the interest on the federal deficit — in charges directly attributable to driving, over and above normal user fees.”

The result is a hidden cost of $2.25 per gallon of gasoline Americans consume each year. It’s money collected from income and property taxes and higher consumer prices, all of which are paid by those “who don’t even drive — the elderly, city residents who rely on mass transit, and the poor. To have a system in which those who benefit shift the costs to those who do not is not merely unfair; it understates the costs that car users make society pay. And charging motorists less than what their driving costs encourages more driving, which in turn intensifies the problems of overuse.”

Add to this that roads and highways are considered infrastructure and public transit an expense. Despite the fact that highways as public transportation merely open development possibilities, Goddard argues, roads do not return one dime to the public in the way public transit systems are expected to. According to Goddard, public transportation systems on average have not pulled a profit since 1963. But state and federal departments of transportation that build roads have not once run in the black.

In Kansas City, cost-shifting has a marked effect. Public transportation was gutted in the past 20 years while the area built more highways. But congestion increases, although Kansas City has more highway and interstate miles per capita than any other city in the country. “Building highway capacity is a guarantee to use that capacity,” says Joe Perry, project manager for the Central Business Corridor Plan, an effort on the part of Kansas City, Mo., to restart the KCATA’s engineering effort for a light rail or “fixed-guideway” spine from downtown to the Plaza. (The KCATA plan came unhinged in 1997 when then-Mayor Cleaver called it “touristy frou frou.”) This is especially important as Kansas City rides ever closer to getting its federal highway funding cut because of air pollution violations.

“We have to look at our options because in reality, we can never build enough,” Perry says. “We build capacity, and we will fill it. If we offer an alternative, we will find that, like in other cities, people will use that, too.

“It means transit enhancements. When we look at cities similar to Kansas City, we can now see the results of fixed-guideway systems — light rail, bus rapid transit (buses running on paths separated from roadway). When these cities — Denver, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, Orlando, Charlotte — built these systems, they had to look at public transportation in the context of economic development and zoning changes that allow for wider land-use options. In Kansas City, you not only have to do those things but also look at clean air attainment, the definite economic benefits, and residential and employment options available to the whole area.”

The first “Preparing for Action” workshop, titled “Regional Transit Needs Assessment” and sponsored by the Regional Transit Alliance, will be Tuesday, Jan. 11, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Sylvester Powell Jr. Community Center, 6200 Martway (one block south of Johnson Drive and Lamar), Mission, Kan.PUBLIC transit

starts getting the attention

it deserves

& needs

Categories: News