Kansas City is poised to become the largest city in the country to eliminate bus fares.
The Kansas City Council on Thursday enthusiastically endorsed the idea, voting unanimously to direct the city manager to identify up to $8 million from the city budget to fund free bus service.
Fourth District Councilman Eric Bunch, who co-sponsored the measure along with Mayor Quinton Lucas, acknowledged the importance of the change.
“I don’t want to do it for any sort of national recognition, I want to do it because it’s the right thing to do, I believe that people have a right to move about this city,” Bunch said.
Putting money back into the local economy
Robbie Makinen, the head of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, said a $1.50 fare would go much farther to boost the economy outside the farebox.
“It's not going to leave the state. It's going to go right back into the local economy, buying a pair of tennis shoes, buying some bread, buying whatever, generating sales tax…. Which we get a piece of anyway,” Makinen told KCUR last month.
Makinen estimated about 20% of bus riders across the metro area already ride for free. That includes veterans and high school students in three Kansas City districts.
Kansas City resident Michael Mumford told KCUR in November he rides at least once a day. He estimated eliminating fares could save him up to $1000 a year, which would help him pay for classes at Metropolitan Community College.
“It’d help me out a lot. Put some change in my pocket… buy some books for class,” Mumford said.
Makinen said going fare-free across the entire system will cost about $12 million a year. Kansas City's portion of that is the $8 million approved by the city council.
Free buses at what cost?
Kansas City Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, who chairs the city’s finance committee, said $8 million for free busses, means $8 million less for other services.
She added a clause in the resolution that would require the city manager to return to the council and explain where the funding comes from.
“Because I know there's not $3 million, $5 million or $8 million sitting around,” Shields told KCUR.
Still, councilmembers reiterated that they fully intend to eliminate bus fares and that Shield’s request was merely for informational purposes.
Councilman Kevin McManus said it would ensure that the funding is sustainable.
“When we take the fareboxes away, nobody wants to be on this council putting them back,” McManus said.
Other cities watching with interest
The zero-fare option would only apply to Kansas City, Missouri busses, even though Ride KC serves the entire metro area, which is split across seven counties in two states.
Only buses that originate and return to Kansas City, Missouri, would be free.
Josh Powers, who oversees transit services in Johnson County, Kansas, said someone may ride free in parts of the metro area, but not in others.
He said all the different jurisdictions have worked hard to make transit seamless since they came under the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.
“We've done a lot of work to make sure that our fares are the same across the region, to make sure that our branding is the same across the region and our messaging is the same,” Powers said.
Powers said other municipalities are watching with interest to see how the idea plays out, but he says Johnson County is not currently considering going fare-free.
Lisa Rodriguez is the afternoon newscaster and the city hall reporter for KCUR 89.3 Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.