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Economy

Kansas City Transportation Options Are Increasingly Futuristic And Free To Access In 2020

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SOM
City officials expects thousands of jobs to be created as construction begins on a new airport terminal at Kansas City International Airport.

The KCUR news staff presents the State of Kansas City series as a look ahead to 2020 on topics of importance to the region. Find the State of Kansas City report on other topics in the series as they are published each weekday, Jan. 6–Jan. 20. Follow coverage on these topics at KCUR.org and on 89.3 FM throughout the year.

Kansas City is a city of roads — the metropolitan area has long held claim to the highest number of highway miles per capita, which has made it a city of drivers. Kansas City’s sprawl across two states has also made public transportation a challenge, but officials are looking to change that in 2020.

Later this year, Kansas City may become the first major city in the nation to offer free bus service. That, along with ongoing work to bring the current streetcar line south to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, could get more people using public transit and more cars off the roads. And as more people turn to alternative forms of transit, cars will have to make room for bikes, pedestrians and electric scooters.

Easy access to highways and interstates and a robust railroad system have also made the region a natural freight and distribution hub, but those highways are getting crowded and chances are that 2020 will be a difficult year for freight haulers. Railroads roll into the year hauling about 5% less freight than a year ago, a substantial decline. The trucking industry weathered a wave of bankruptcies in 2019 but still enters 2020 with too many trucks for too few loads of freight.

Meanwhile, some forms of transportation in Kansas City are looking toward the future. A new terminal is taking shape at Kansas City International Airport, and Missouri is in the running to develop a cutting edge Hyperloop system that could cut the trip to St. Louis to half an hour. 

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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Transportation touches nearly every part of our lives. Whether you’re driving to work, flying out of KCI for work or looking for a bus route that will get you to a job across town in under an hour, our livelihoods depend on getting from point A to point B with relative ease.  But it's more than that — every board, appliance, bite of food and stitch of clothing in your home was transported part of the way there by truck.

The Kansas City region continues to solidify its place as a leading freight hub, and as Kansas City moves ahead with progressive transit initiatives, other cities across the country will be watching. 

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

  • Kansas City International Airport: In 2017, voters in Kansas City, Missouri, overwhelmingly approved a new, billion-dollar single airport terminal to replace the aging horseshoe-shaped terminals. City officials promised the project would be transformative — creating and training people for thousands of jobs for Kansas City residents. In 2020, those promises will be put to the test as construction of the new terminal begins in earnest. 
  • Zero-Fare Bus Transit: Kansas City is poised to become the first major city to eliminate bus fares. Proponents say the money saved on fares would boost the local economy and make public transit more accessible. The current bus system, already in the midst of a makeover, will have to adapt to the expected increase in ridership. 
  • Streetcar Extension: The planned extension of Kansas City's streetcar line from downtown to the University of Missouri-Kansas City failed to make it into the new federal budget proposal last year. This year, they’re hoping for a different outcome. While the project will be partially funded locally, it will depend heavily on the federal piece and city officials don’t appear to have the appetite to pick up the tab should the feds pass again. 
  • Hyperloop: Missouri is vying to build a test a 12-to-15-mile test track for Virgin Hyperloop One. Hyperloop, an experimental transportation system in which pods levitate above a magnetic track as they race through a sealed tube, could cut the travel time between Kansas City and St. Louis to half an hour. A feasibility study predicted that a full-length line could cost as much as $10.4 billion while creating an “economic megaregion” and bringing as many as 17,200 jobs to the state.
  • Freight: As a major freight hub, Kansas City is home to dozens of trucking companies, including one of the nation’s largest, YRC Worldwide, and one of the largest railroads, Kansas City Southern. Many economists say the shipping industry is in recession, and the slowdown is likely to spark layoffs as well as the consolidation of smaller trucking companies. The good news is that Kansas City’s burgeoning warehousing and freight distribution centers will continue to expand in 2020.

KEY PLAYERS

Robbie Makinen
CEO of the Kansas City Area Transit Authority

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Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3

Makinen was behind Kansas City’s push to eliminate bus fares and will be responsible for its success or failure. The KCATA is also in the midst of a much-needed system redesign. If going fare-free increases ridership as hoped, it will be crucial that people can travel efficiently on the bus. 

Anthony Slaughter
Workforce director for the new airport terminal

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Credit Clark Weitz Clarkson Construction

In his role, Slaughter will coordinate with small businesses that want to work on the project, as well as run a training program to give construction experience to people just entering the field. Many of the promises made by city officials when they were selling the airport project to voters hinge on these programs being successful and creating both jobs and experienced workers in the metro beyond the life cycle of the airport. 

Thomas “T.J.” O’Connor
Chief Operating Officer of Overland Park-based YRC Worldwide

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Credit YRC

He’s also President of YRC Freight, formerly the largest less-than-truckload shipping company, and one of the biggest still using union labor. YRC enters 2020 with a more flexible agreement with the Teamsters union and a plan to improve the efficiency of its network through “smart warehouse” technology.  

Chris Gutierrez
President of Kansas City Smart Port

Gutierrez is in charge of marketing greater Kansas City to companies that want to expand their warehousing ability or manufacture products near transportation hubs. Gutierrez expects to see temperature-controlled warehouses built on spec in Kansas City for the first time this year and new startups arising to meet the growing demand for e-commerce deliveries.

BY THE NUMBERS

4,000 — Approximately how many people will have worked on the new airport terminal by the time it opens in 2023. Construction kicks into high gear in 2020.  
$300-$500 million — How much it could cost to build a Hyperloop test track in Missouri. Officials say it would increase the state’s chances of landing the superfast transportation system. 
$400 million — The price tag attached to a bike master plan that the Kansas City Council tabled last year. Bike advocates say that officials used the high cost as a way to pass on the plan but that the cost was meant to be spread out over decades.
58% — The growth in sales tax revenue in the Kansas City streetcar district from 2014-2016. Citywide, sales tax revenue grew 16% during that time frame. 

KEY DATES

Jan. 15: This is the first chance for Kansas City officials to discuss an ambitious VisionZero plan that aims to eliminate traffic deaths by 2030. It will be the first piece of traffic legislation since the death of a cyclist at the end of 2019 and a precursor to a revised master bike plan. 

March: The Kansas City Council is set to begin budget negotiations and learn where the money to eliminate bus fares will come from. Some city officials worry the $8 million for free buses will shortchange other public services. 

March: Crews plan to start work on Interstate 35 at 75th Street, one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the area. The Kansas Department of Transportation will spend $16.5 million of mostly federal money to add a fourth lane in both directions.

April: That’s when the Federal Transit Authority will release its annual budget, which could include up to $151 million for an extension of the streetcar south to UMKC. 

Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig. Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman.

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