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The big cost of Kansas City eliminating free bus fares: Fewer riders and new toll systems

The KCATA might bring back bus fares by 2025.
Chase Castor
Kansas City Beacon
The KCATA might bring back bus fares by 2025.

Toll boxes may soon be revamped on all RideKC buses if the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority reinstates fares to address a multi-million-dollar budget shortage. That would especially hurt the low-income residents who rely on free buses most, and could lead to a drop in ridership.

The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority could soon stick riders with fares again — after spending millions on modern fare boxes.

Facing a $12 million to $15 million gap in its budget, the agency has been talking about reintroducing bus fares, three years after becoming the first major U.S. city to make public transit free.

The move could bring much-needed revenue and, a consultant’s report suggests, lower ridership.

Federal relief funds that helped sustain zero-fare services, such as the CARES Act and the CRRSAA Act, started during the pandemic and run out this year.

“There’s lots of potential ways to bring the new revenue forward,” said Richard Jarrold, deputy CEO at the KCATA.

To collect fares, the KCATA would need to replace its outdated toll systems in all RideKC vehicles, at a cost of $2.5 million to $6 million.

The estimate comes from a consulting firm’s study. The consultants noted the fares likely will keep some riders off buses, lowering the potential revenue.

Still, the transportation authority maintains that the project could generate much-needed revenue while still providing affordable services to low-income riders.

Why is KCATA considering bus fares?

The year before the pandemic, bus fares totaled about $9 million in Kansas City, or $12 million when rides across the wider metro area were added, Jarrold said.

If fares returned, they would bring in about half of the pre-pandemic average. Nelson/Nygaard, the consulting firm, estimated that new fares would bring in $5.8 million to $7.1 million a year if fares returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Jarrold said that would pay for upgrading the fare boxes in the first year. Partnerships with local businesses and schools that would pay for free bus passes for students and workers would add to that revenue, he said.

“Those numbers are based on the fare program at the time that had different levels of participation by groups like the universities, etc.,” he said. “That number could go up and down. There’s flexibility within that fare policy that determines just how much revenue might be generated.”

The transportation authority has other options, including local and federal grants, community contracts and charging cities in the Kansas City area for running routes through their communities.

“Fare revenue is not the only source that could be used,” Jarrold said.

What would new bus fare toll boxes feature?

Before zero fare, the price for a single ride was $1.50. A monthly pass was $50. The price for any potential fare is still up in the air.

The financial involvement of schools, universities, employers and low-income social programs could affect where the KCATA lands on fares.

A new ticketing system would come with contactless transit passes to make boarding and transactions faster. The agency wants to minimize cash payments because they slow down riders more when they’re getting on a bus, Jarrold said. One idea being considered is to have ticket vending machines in designated areas off the vehicles.

“Those are details we have to work out to make the whole process as simple and as easy as possible for the users,” he said.

The old pass system would likely not be compatible with the new technology.

What does this mean to riders?

RideKC buses have seen a slight increase since the pandemic, going from roughly 12 million riders in 2019 to just under 12.2 million in 2023. But Nelson/Nygaard estimates a 17% to 33% drop in ridership with the reintroduction of fares.

“That’s 17% to 33% of people that are not having the same access to food or medicine or people that are skipping medical appointments because they can’t afford to be making extra trips,” said Raymond Forstater, a spokesperson with Sunrise Movement KC, a youth-led movement fighting for climate policy.

The group wants to shift more commutes to buses to cut carbon emissions. It also argues that reintroducing fares will hurt low-income residents.

The KCATA estimates that reductions in ridership will be less than the consultant’s predictions because of changes in the transit market. The models used in the fare collection study don’t take new fare provisions into account, such as income-based fares that did not exist before the pandemic, said KCATA spokesperson Cindy Baker.

“There might be a ridership drop of 17%, but it won’t be near 30%,” she said.

Bringing back fares is likely to hit low-income riders the hardest.

The 2021 State of Black Kansas City report conducted by the Urban League of Greater Kansas City found that 92% of riders said zero fare allowed them to shop for food and other essentials more often and 82% said it let them get or keep jobs.

“When you (charge fares) you are essentially accepting that some people are going to be left behind,” he said.

This story was originally published on the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Mili Mansaray is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.
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