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Kansas City Transit Gets Last Minute Reprieve, Faces New Trial
by Bill Onasch

Kansas City voters, by a nearly two-to-one margin, have approved an additional d cent sales tax to support ATA transit. Without this action Metro bus service would have collapsed in January. Like other transit workers and bus riders, I am celebrating—sort of.

It’s a victory comparable to a condemned prisoner on death row getting a reprieve from the courts—but facing a new trial. We’re not out of danger yet, not by a long shot.

The tax has a "sunset" provision of only five years. That’s fair enough. If the transit crisis can’t be turned around in five years then the new sales tax won’t much matter.

What’s disturbing is that little else has changed. The same agencies—Mid America Regional Council (MARC); Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (ATA); Johnson County Transit; and Wyandotte County/Kansas City, KS (Unified Government)—that have presided over urban sprawl and the decimation of transit, remain in charge and steeped in the culture of ancillary service to development schemes.

The theme of the proponents of the new tax was "Keep KC Working!" Horror stories (mostly true) were circulated about how many would lose jobs if Question 1 didn’t keep the buses running.

Those endorsing and/or bankrolling the campaign included Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce; Economic Development Corporation; Hotel-Motel Association; KC Convention and Visitors Bureau; Kansas City Business Journal; and Republicans d.b.a. Citizens Association.

These groups have not often shown much interest in either transit expansion or the personal plight of the working poor. But they do understand the need to get low wage workers to jobs at employers whose interests they look out for. (Some of them also understood how to siphon off nearly eight million dollars of transit tax money over the past few years for "developers.")

The powers-that-be grudgingly acknowledge the need for a bare-bones transit system to serve the working poor, downtown office workers who can’t find affordable parking, and tourists for transport between City Market and the Plaza. They think it’s okay for the working class to pay a little bit more in sales tax to make that possible. That much they support—but no more.

Getting people to work who have no other transportation alternative is of course part of the mission of transit. Forty-five percent of Metro riders fall into that category.

But what about making transit itself an attractive alternative, for a variety of trips, to those who have the option of driving a car? There are important reasons for pursuing such a goal.

Think Globally—Act Locally
That’s an old phrase that is more relevant than ever.

MWe can no longer doubt or ignore the scientific evidence that greenhouse gasses generated by fossil fuel burning contribute to global warming.

MFossil fuels are nonrenewable resources being consumed at an alarming rate. That’s one reason wars are being fought over oil. That’s why there is pressure to drill wells in pristine preserves such as in the Arctic.

MAs a nation with more vehicles than drivers we are polluting the air of every urban area and demanding more money and land for road construction, expansion, and repair.

MWe have killed more people in traffic accidents than we lost in combat in all of America’s wars.

We Need Expanded, Cleaner Transit
Expanded transit is the single best way to at least alleviate these serious problems. To the extent we can offer transit as a reasonable alternative to many trips now made by car we will reduce air pollution, fuel consumption and traffic accidents. Such alternatives would require establishing many new routes and longer and more frequent schedules.

We also need to clean up our present transit system. At one time Kansas City had an extensive network of streetcars and trolley buses operating off overhead wires. Those were relatively cleaner (and also faster, and in the case of trolley buses quieter) than the diesel buses that replaced them in the 1950s.

Streetcars, now rechristened light rail, are making a comeback in many areas. Some cities, such as San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, never abandoned their trolley buses. Long run transit expansion in our metropolitan area would benefit from electric service despite its high initial capital costs.

In the meantime there are cheaper alternatives that could make a big difference—hybrid buses. Using technology similar to power on railroad locomotives the hybrid buses combine diesel (or natural gas) engines with electric motors. Much cleaner, much faster.

Of course if we are serious about having an expanded, cleaner transit system we have to figure out a way to pay for it. Just as we subsidize car and truck drivers by building and maintaining roads we have to be prepared to subsidize transit. If the system serves the whole metropolitan area it has to be financed by the whole area. Working class shoppers in Kansas City can’t shoulder the whole burden.

We need to discuss, and at least begin to act on, these issues and more over the next five years. If we don’t get it together we’re not likely to get another reprieve for even our present inadequate system.

November 5, 2003

Bill Onasch is a Metro bus driver and a member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287