Transit in Kansas City Bucks National Trend
by Bill Onasch

Newspapers around the country have been running headlines about the growth of public transit. More people, frustrated with congestion, squeezed by high fuel costs, and concerned about the environment, are leaving their cars behind for more trips on buses and trains.

But somehow the management of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, along with their transit colleagues in the Wyandotte County Unified Government, have managed to buck this national trend. Despite many new routes launched with great fanfare transit ridership actually went down in our area last year.

When I started driving for the Metro in 1990 the ATA carried 18.6 million passengers that year and 366 thousand rode KCK's independent The Bus. Veteran drivers told me then that ridership was down and that concerned them. 

They had good reason to be concerned. ATA management adopted a downsizing strategy and mindset. By 1995 they managed to run off enough passengers to bring ridership down to 14.2 million. Because of community resistance the downsizing of the KCK system took longer to implement, hitting stride only with the election of labor's “friend” Carol Marinovich, and the creation of the Unified Government. Only last year did they finally bottom out at 214 thousand—over a fifty percent decline from the beginning of the decade.

There was a slow, modest recovery in ATA ridership from the low point in 1996 until the slight dip again last year. This can be explained by three factors:

Reducing the student fare to 25 cents.
The big increase in employment among urban core riders.
The creation of dozens of new routes.

This is not a strong foundation for the future. Last year's decline was not a “hiccup.” It is a warning of danger ahead.

Public hearings have been scheduled for a proposal to double the student fare to fifty cents. If enacted this will lead to a significant decline in youth ridership. 

The job market has softened and there will be a drop as the working poor become unemployed poor once again.

As far as the new routes, with the exception of the casino runs most of them don't amount to a hill of beans in terms of ridership. Many of them are supported by creative one-time special grants that are unlikely to be renewed.

But even if ridership was stabilized there are other major problems. The fleet is aging. Most of the forty-foot full-size buses are overdue for replacement and frequently break down. The radio system is practically disfunctional.

Despite all the smoke-and-mirrors hoopla that marked the final days of Dick Davis as ATA general manager the reality is that we still have a transit crisis in Kansas City that isn't going to be satisfactorily resolved by ATA management, our regional planners, or the bosses' politicians.

We'll have more to say about this crisis soon.