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Kansas City airport needs express shuttles from downtown and Johnson County, study suggests

Tuesday marked opening day for the Kansas City International Airport's new terminal. Passengers flowed in and out of the airport, many stopping to take photos or videos of Kansas City's new digs.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Travelers at the Kansas City International Airport's new terminal in 2023.

A study by the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority and the Mid-America Regional Council has recommended two new express bus routes — one in Johnson County and one in Kansas City, Missouri — to get people to and from the airport ahead of the FIFA World Cup in 2026.

A surge in tourism to Kansas City for the FIFA World Cup in 2026 may result in an express bus service to Kansas City International airport for Johnson Countians.

A study by the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority and the Mid-America Regional Council has recommended two new express bus routes — one in Johnson County and one in Kansas City, Missouri — to get people to and from the airport.

So far the idea is still in its infancy. There are many details and not much time to work them out before the international soccer tournament begins.

Johnson County officials involved in transit planning call the idea a “heavy lift” but still possible to have up and running in a little over two years. And if it works, it could become a new transit option even after the tournament is over, they say.

Enormous international tournament on the horizon

Kansas City is one of the host cities for an event that will swell hotel, restaurant and public transportation to capacity.

FIFA expects more than six million fans from around the world to come to Kansas City for matches and other World Cup events during the tournament, which begins in June 2026 and ends in July.

The matches will be played at Arrowhead Stadium, but any number of related events like watch parties are also expected. Kansas City will host group stage matches on June 16, June 20, June 25 and June 27 of that year, a Round of 32 game on July 3 and a quarter final on July 11.

Getting all those out-of-towners in and out of the airport has become a top priority for planners.

For Johnson County, the Kansas City transit authority and MARC recommended an express service from either the Overland Park Convention Center or Lenexa City Center with an interim stop in Kansas City, Kansas.

The study also recommended a route for Kansas City’s downtown from Union Station or the Convention Center and East Village Transit Center. At the airport, visitors would be picked up or dropped off in the commercial lanes.

Buses would need to run at 30 minute intervals for 18 hours a day, with 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week being the hours most optimal to serve visitors, according to the study.

Potential price tag: $80 million over 10 years

Adding airport routes would come with considerable cost and time considerations.

Five buses would be needed to handle the new route for Johnson County, for example. Those buses would need to be equipped to help passengers board and disembark easily and to have more space for luggage than the typical city bus, according to preferences of focus groups for the study.

Other potential costs include signs, security, lighting and crosswalks at the endpoints as well as any additional storage space for the buses themselves.

The initial capital costs for the Johnson County route were about $7.3 million, with annual operating and maintenance costs figured at $5.6 million to $6 million, depending on which endpoint is chosen.

If the Johnson County service continues on a more permanent basis, it would cost about $80 million over 10 years, according to the study.

Getting all that together in a mere two years is going to be a “reasonably heavy lift,” said Josh Powers, director of Johnson County transit.

“We’re still in the information gathering stage,” he added, noting that the next steps are up to elected officials, who will need time to assess and make decisions.

The World Cup will strain taxis and ride sharing services to capacity, Powers said. “It’s going to put unique pressure on the existing transit system.”

Moreover, the study notes that the procurement process to buy a new bus is about two years, and that federal grant funding comes with its own sets of deadlines and requirements that could further complicate things.

“There’s a lot of things that need to be done between now and June 2026,” said County Commission Chairman Mike Kelly. For instance it will take commitment from all walks of the county’s leadership, he added.

“There’s nothing like a deadline to focus people,” he said.

County Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick,who is one of the elected officials on the MARC board of directors, had similar views.

“I would hope that it’s doable,” she said.

Failing to have adequate transit options could have future economic repercussions, she said. But even so, both Hanzlick and Kelly stressed that the county needs to work this out with the other city, state and federal leaders.

“The county alone is not going to be able to make this happen,” Hanzlick said.

Could the World Cup be used as a test run?

Kelly and Hanzlick said finding the funding is one of the most daunting aspects of the proposal. Powers, however, said it’s possible that some kind of express route could be working from Johnson County by the city’s first group-stage game.

For instance, the route could be initiated as a pilot with leased buses to save on costs, Powers said.

Kelly expanded on that idea.

“Piloting for an event like the World Cup gives us the opportunity to see how the program is going to work,” and whether it could be a long-term fit for Johnson County, he said.

“It would be a unique chance to try something different that could leave a legacy for the future of our growing county,” he continued. As for federal funding, Kelly foresees possibilities for grants related to congestion relief, for example.

Whether the express route remains will depend on how things go during the tournament.

Hanzlick said she is keen to make sure the county chooses wisely on the details. For instance, the suggested hours may not cover people with early flights and airport employees with those shifts.

“We don’t want to do something and underfund it or underestimate the cost,” she said. “We don’t want to start something that doesn’t meet the needs and then be surprised if it doesn’t work.”

Kelly and Hanzlick noted that the county is in the process of making a longer-range strategic plan for public transportation, and an airport route pilot could provide important information on whether it should continue.

“At this point I’m not guaranteeing anything or ruling anything out,” Kelly said.

This story was originally published by the Johnson County Post.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Contact her at roxieham@gmail.com.
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