Out of the Box—Into the Streets
The Speech I Would Have Given to the February 2 Emergency Meeting

by Bill Onasch 

Introduction: In response to plans for massive cuts in Kansas City transit service the KC Area Labor Party called an emergency response meeting. The event was also endorsed by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287 and the kclabor.org web site. The plan was to have a panel presentation followed by discussion from the floor. Weather intervened however with the worst recorded ice storm in Kansas City history. Many were without electrical power for several days and numerous streets and alleys were blocked by fallen trees. Most of the panelists made it to the meeting but few others. I didn’t give this talk that I had prepared for two reasons: 1) power failure at home prevented me from retrieving it from my hard-drive and 2) because of the small turnout of mainly people already familiar with transit problems we adopted a less formal format

We meet in response to announcement of the biggest one-time service cut in ATA history accompanied by the first Metro layoffs  in a decade. These cuts took many by surprise. After all Metro ridership has shown a modest increase. Until very recently the ATA was having difficulty filling all of its jobs. A few months ago, around the light rail debate, the area’s movers and shakers were talking about building a world-class transit system in Kansas City. What happened? 

The official short answer is that sales tax revenues are down because of 9-11 leaving the Metro’s budget projections 1.7 million dollars short. It’s not that simple however. 

The Metro is indeed heavily dependent on the ½ cent transit sales tax collected by Kansas City, Missouri. Of course, since this revenue is based on consumer purchases in the city, it will fluctuate somewhat from time to time. That’s why budgets need to have a contingency fund set aside that can absorb the ups and downs of consumer spending. Apparently the contingency funds had already been exhausted during the period of record sales tax collections. Instead of slowing down expansion of service the Metro has to slam on the brakes and even make deep cuts. To be fair to the relatively new top management at the ATA this is a legacy they inherited from past General Manager Dick Davis. 

But wait, there’s more. We’ve all heard a lot about TIFs—tax increment financing—that the city has used to keep or attract new business development. Well, these profitable corporations are being allowed to pocket sales tax money, including the ½ cent that’s supposed to go to transit. In essence transit money is being plundered in order to subsidize successful companies. When this nightmare is factored into budget projections next year the future of the Metro—along with other public services—looks grim indeed. 

Is there anything that can be done to overcome this challenge? I believe we have to, as they say these days, think—and act—“outside the box.” We have to be prepared to challenge some long held beliefs and prejudices. 

Many will say we’re tilting at windmills. Americans love their cars and avoid public transit if possible. Kansas City has more freeway concrete per capita than any other U.S. city. All we need is a small bus system that can handle the poor, the elderly, and the disabled—sort of a charity approach to those unfortunates who can’t get cars. 

Americans do seem to love cars. But most folks in Europe, Canada, and Japan also have cars that they’re fond of. But they don’t use their cars for every journey. Almost all of the other industrialized countries maintain well-used transit systems, and inter-city train networks. 

Americans didn’t abandon public transit because of car love at first sight . We have become car dependent as a result of very conscious social, economic, and political policies to promote the auto industry, the oil industry, and construction contractors. Sprawl lured the middle class out of the urban core to areas not served by transit. Transit systems were acquired by General Motors, and others who viewed public transportation as a mortal enemy, and they consciously ran these systems into the ground. These national trends were carried out to the extreme in Kansas City leaving behind an urban core not only lacking adequate transit service but also schools that have lost their accreditation and a crumbling infrastructure as well.

You can’t seriously discuss transit without also addressing social policy. What kind of a place do we want to live in, work in, study in, shop in? Will we create a livable urban environment or will the goal of those who can afford to be to move ever farther out to try to escape and ignore problems? 

I think clearly there are increasing numbers who are willing to address these problems instead of running away.  All the polls suggest that a majority of residents of our area favor expanded transit service. 

And well they should. We’ve got powerful arguments for greatly expanding transit usage—less air pollution, less consumption of fossil fuels, less need to build and maintain roads, and of course fewer traffic fatalities. Every person would benefit from these improvements whether or not they personally ever used public transit. 

But there are some who see all this as a threat to western civilization as we know it. The car makers still view transit as a competitor. The oil companies are not interested in curbing use of fossil fuels. The construction companies want to see more sprawl, more miles of concrete roads laid. And most politicians are heavily indebted to these interests. That’s our problem—not our love affair with the car. 

And then there are others who will tell us that yes, expanded transit would be a good thing but right now we can’t afford it. We have to make do with what’s available. 

Wait a minute. Are we poorer than Europe, Canada, and Japan? They can afford decent public transit—and also universal health care, adequate social security, good schools, and other useful public services—but we can’t? 

The fact is that we live in the richest country in the history of the world. Our problem is an inequitable tax system that exempts the rich from paying their fair share toward needed public services. The wealthy don’t like to see money squandered on things like transit and health care when it could be put to better use subsidizing construction of a new store or office building. They don’t see any urgency in bus service being cut but they demand—and get—emergency response—and millions of tax dollars—to save Bannister Mall from going under. 

No we’re not too poor to afford transit. We’re getting our priorities straight for a change. It’s time we insisted that this public service gets the funding it needs and deserves even if that means the wealthy have to cough up their share to pay for it. 

If we’re going to save transit we’re going to need to build a political movement in the community to fight for it. We have to get out on the streets and ride the buses and go to the community meetings to educate, agitate and organize for transit. We need to put together a broad-based coalition that includes the Regional Transit alliance, the Sierra Club, ATU Local 1287, church committees, community organizations, etc. The Kansas City Labor Party will be with you in this effort.