The Future of Kansas City Transit

Statement of the Labor Party Transit Club

 

A Crisis in Transit

We welcome the effort to get citizen input on the future of transit. Nearly everyone would agree that the Kansas City Area has a transit crisis. We are far from a consensus however on the nature, cause, or especially the solution to this crisis.

 

The Labor Party Transit Club—made up of workers at the Metro and others concerned about transit issues—has been conducting community meetings, discussing issues with neighborhood and environmental activists, and researching alternatives over the past two years. We want to offer our views on how to move transit forward. We’ll begin with an outline of where we need to go and will follow with more detail and how we reached these objectives.

 

· Transit policy must serve far more than just those who don’t have access to cars. Our objective should be to also substantially reduce car traffic by offering realistic transit alternatives.

 

· There are many solid reasons for slashing auto usage: saving lives by reducing accidents; cutting back on air pollution; easing traffic congestion; eliminating the need for constantly expanding roadways; conserving nonrenewable fuels. Of course cars are going to be with us for the foreseeable future but adequate transit, along with  alternative fuels being developed, can abate many of the problems they generate.

 

· Transit services should be planned and operated by a single transit authority operating throughout the entire metropolitan area. This was the original vision for the ATA. Steps have to be taken to make the ATA serve that vision.

 

· The ATA should be democratically controlled by the residents of our area by electing the Board of Commissioners. Decisions should be made in the open—not behind closed doors.

 

· A workable transit plan requires the active participation and collaboration of not only transit professionals and regional planners, but also transit workers, environmentalists, neighborhood groups, student representatives, as well as government officials and business leaders.

 

· Transit needs to be viewed as a vital public service. Like fire protection, and schools, it is a service that will not be directly utilized by all at all times but nevertheless benefits the entire community. This service needs adequate public funding.

 

·  This public service should be run by a public agency—the ATA— and the public sector workers employed by the ATA. This work force can remain skilled and stable only if workers receive decent wages, benefits, and working conditions. Transit privatization experiments have been costly failures.

 

A Little Bit of History

Kansas City has a rich transit history. This was the birthplace of the electric streetcar. There was an extensive system of private streetcar right-of-ways and links with interurban car lines that connected with places as far away as St Joe. In the Thirties a network of trolley bus lines was built. Kansas City was recognized for having one of the finest systems in the Midwest.

 

As late as 1949, the Public Service Co., the principal predecessor of the Metro, was carrying more than 300,000 passenger trips a day on its streetcars and buses. The urban core was well-served by this system with many lines operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The population of the area has increased more than fifty percent since then but the Metro today carries only around 50,000 passenger trips on weekdays.

 

The conventional explanation of this dramatic collapse is America’s “Love Affair With the Car.” This is nonsense. In Europe and Japan most people have cars but continue to also use transit heavily. The decimation of transit in this country is the result of very conscious public policy, developed by major economic interests and implemented by politicians doing their bidding.

 

After World War II, the decision was made to largely abandon the existing urban cores in most areas and shift not only the affluent but most of the white middle-class as well to brand new suburbs. There was a tremendous boom in single-family housing backed by government loan guarantees through the VA and FHA.

 

There was little transit service available in these new areas and none was planned. Instead, hundreds of billions of tax-payer dollars were spent on freeways and local street systems to provide access to these new suburbs. To gain that access you had to have a car. That was one of the principal objectives of postwar urban planning.

 

General Motors helped speed up the drive toward car dependency by covertly buying controlling interests in a number of major transit companies. They used their control to wreck these companies. Although this GM conspiracy was proven in court, you’ll rarely hear it mentioned in public. It doesn’t fit into the “love affair” fairy tale that we’ve all been fed.

 

Sprawl

A couple years ago, the Kansas City Star published an excellent series called “Divided We Sprawl,” analyzing the development of our metropolitan area in the post war era. The local powers-that-be took this national trend and pushed it to the extreme. We have more freeway miles per capita than any other city in the world and the construction industry thinks we should have a lot more.

 

By the mid-Sixties most of the privately-owned transit companies around the country had collapsed. Congress passed the Urban Mass Transit Act which set the stage for establishing subsidized quasi-public transit authorities to save at least a minimal level of transit service. That’s what led to the creation of the ATA here.

 

In some areas these new authorities turned transit around dramatically, offering service to the outlying areas as well as the traditional urban core. Even Kansas City initially saw a modest comeback. When Dick Davis took over as General Manager, the Metro was still carrying 100,000 passengers a day.

 

Transit Fragmentation

But the ATA never really became a genuine regional transit body. After an area-wide transit tax was rejected, service was contracted out to municipalities who decided how much service they wanted to pay for. Only Kansas City, MO established a stable base for transit funding with the half-cent sales tax. Other municipal governments had to scrape up money from their general revenues.

 

In the Eighties, various suburbs started opting out of the Metro system. Lee’s Summit, Grandview, Belton, Harrisonville, and Leavenworth simply scrapped transit completely. Johnson County, Blue Springs, and Excelsior Springs turned to private contractors to provide bare-boned service.

 

The prevailing attitude among economic and political leaders in this area has always been that real people drive cars. In their eyes, transit is for losers—the poor, the elderly, the disabled. They treat transit as if it were part of the welfare system. Until recently, the Metro today was locked into the neglected urban core with few options for providing transportation to core residents to job, education, or housing opportunities outside the core and no chance for picking up new riders from outside the core.

 

ATA management completely accepted this situation. They didn’t rock the boat with the local establishment. Their long-term plans were set for downsizing and cutting labor costs.

 

Transit Workers Fight Service Cuts

In 1992 the ATA opened their downsizing campaign with a big round of service cuts, accompanied by layoffs of drivers and maintenance workers, and fare hikes. The Metro workers’ union, ATU Local 1287, responded with a series of community outreach activities. A petition, with over 8,000 signatures, protesting the cuts and fare increases was presented to Mayor Cleaver. The cuts in KCMO then stopped for awhile. In KCK, Local 1287 mobilized strong public opposition—including some rowdy appearances at City Council meetings—which blocked further cuts in that town for about three years—until the “friends of labor” in the Marinovich administration came to power.

 

Downsizing,Outsourcing, Wage Cuts

In 1995, after the union rejected a wage-cutting scheme to use more “small buses,” the ATA began a privatization drive of their own. They contracted out two Northland routes to Laidlaw Transit Services, and threatened to outsource much more. The union filed a grievance and prevailed in arbitration, getting the work back.

 

Shortly after the union’s victory over contracting out routes, area transit got hit with a double whammy. First, transit funding was drastically reduced by our “friends of labor” and the “infrastructure President” in Washington. The ATA started slashing service even before the funding cuts actually took place.

 

The second blow came in a new contract imposed on the union by an “interest arbitrator.” He granted ATA management the right to unlimited conversion of routes to small buses. The small bus routes pay only 75 percent of the operator’s scale. While keeping the same number of vehicles in service, conversion allowed the ATA to cut passenger capacity forty percent and wages 25 percent. The conversions began in KCK—leading to severe overcrowding—and quickly spread throughout the system as the Authority obtained more small buses.

 

Cleaver Stirs Things Up

As transit sank to its low point in 1997 Mayor Cleaver unexpectedly brought the crisis to the center of public attention. Cleaver dismissed the ATA’s projections for light-rail as “touristy froo-froo” and declared a lack of confidence in the ATA’s ability to reverse the transit crisis. The Mayor called on MARC and the Chamber of Commerce to pull together a transit plan.

 

The impetus for the Mayor’s sudden sense of urgency about transit was complaints from area employers. The job market was tightening up and companies were having trouble filling low-wage jobs. There was a big pool of unemployed in the urban core but they had no way of reaching job openings in the Northland and Johnson County. Now the business community recognized that there was a transit crisis—at least they saw a narrow part of the crisis that affected them.

 

 ATA Starts Scrambling

The Chamber of Commerce committee never really got off the ground. But the ATA did start scrambling. They moth-balled their decade-long study of light-rail. They finally followed-up on an arrangement, long pursued by Local 1287, for KCMO school district students to ride the bus for a quarter. And they came up with some new routes in Independence, the Northland, the West Side, Liberty, and even some limited service to Johnson County. More recently token service has been reestablished in Blue Springs and negotiations are under way with Lee’s Summit and Raytown for future service.

 

While any new service is a step in the right direction, most of these new runs are carrying very few passengers. The school program did generate thousands of additional riders. Unfortunately, nearly all of this increase was on lines in the urban core that were already overcrowded. More buses at peak times are urgently needed on high-volume lines such as Troost, Prospect, Country Club and 39th Street—but no core expansion is contemplated by the ATA.

 

We Still Lack a Plan

The ATA is basically reacting to hot-button political pressures and various funding opportunities. There is still no real strategic plan for our overall, long-term transit needs. In our opinion such a plan needs to include the following:

 

Rail—Light and Heavy

The ATA started studying light-rail before St Louis did. St Louis has had their MetroLink running for a few years now and it is a smashing success. In fact, MetroLink alone carries nearly as many passengers as the entire ATA system.

 

Does this mean that Kansas City transit should be rebuilt around light-rail? Not necessarily. The test for transit success for us requires both attracting new riders presently driving cars and maintaining adequate service for the existing passenger base. St Louis, and a few other cities, have passed this test with light-rail. But others have not.

 

Los Angeles has encountered many problems with their subway/light-rail building. A major drawback was that as new service was built to attract affluent suburbanites basic bus service in the urban core was cut back. Inner city residents successfully sued the transit agency charging that their civil rights had been violated with this shift of transit funding. Eventually, a judge ordered that several hundred new buses be put in service.

 

 The ATA’s proposal for a “starter” light-rail line from the Plaza to City Market did not make good transit sense. This corridor is well-served by buses and heavily utilized by bus passengers. Aside from “touristy froo-froo” this proposal would only succeed in switching riders from buses to light-rail and would have little impact on the overall transit crisis.

 

Nor was Clay Chastain’s proposal any better thought out. A line running to our distant airport could never justify the enormous spending required to build and operate it—assuming that funds could ever be obtained. Unlike MetroLink, which terminates at the St Louis airport, there are no potentially high volume stops between downtown and KCI.

 

The only serious light-rail potential that we see would be along the Watkins right-of-way. A line starting around Truman Corners, following 71 Highway, and entering downtown on the Watkins could have some merit.

 

On the other hand, heavy rail could be utilized soon with great success. With the construction of a few stations, and the purchase of rolling stock, Johnson County commuters could escape the nightmares of traveling I-35 and be brought in on existing train tracks to the vicinity of the entertainment center known as Union Station.

 

Freeway Bus Lanes

Another effective improvement requiring relatively little capital investment would be the creation of bus-only express lanes on the Interstate freeways during rush hours. After watching buses speed by them a few times many would start inquiring about bus service. Capital  spending would be limited to the construction of some park-and-ride facilities and the purchase of buses. The toughest part would be winning the political decision to give priority to transit on the freeways.

 

Once commuter ridership has been built up then—and only then—the small new feeder lines that the ATA has been creating would make sense.

 

A Genuine Citizen Effort

We may not be able to imitate the St Louis success with light-rail. But we do need to follow their example in getting public input, and public consensus, in rebuilding our transit system. We can’t rely upon the present ATA management. We certainly can’t depend on the Chamber of Commerce. Progress won’t be made in secret meetings between lobbyists and consultants.

We need a broad-based, activist coalition to combine professional planning with the political struggle needed to do the job.