Two years ago, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority gave veterans free bus passes. The next year, students became the beneficiaries of the zero fare policy. According to KCATA, 23% of riders over the past several years have not paid a dime to ride the bus.
Transit officials argue the policy gives individuals and families more money to pump back into the local economy and that it improves the safety and efficiency of the system.
KCATA leadership proposed eliminating fares for all riders, and Mayor Quinton Lucas made it a goal during his inauguration in August. On Wednesday morning, the transportation committee of the City Council approved that resolution by a vote of 4 to 1.
After the vote, KCATA CEO Robbie Makinen said he was gratified.
“I’m grateful for the support, the leadership of Mayor Lucas and the city toward this project,” he said. “Change comes at the end of your comfort zone. This is the end of everybody’s comfort zone. Nobody has done this before.”
If the council passes a budget including the $8 million requested for free fares, Kansas City, Missouri, would be the first of a number of cities around the country exploring the policy.
Supporters make the case for extending free bus service
The early morning council meeting was packed with supporters of the zero fare policy.
Marissa Wamble Cleaver, director of public information for the Hickman Mills School District, said students in her district have benefited by using free bus passes to get to internships and work.
“Now we have parents and staff asking to be part of the program, which of course we can’t provide,” she told the committee.
Full Employment Council CEO Clyde McQueen said his clients take advantage of the passes to get to training programs, interviews and job fairs.
“We can train people all day long but if they can’t get to a job, it makes no difference,” McQueen said. “A free bus pass could make the difference between someone making $30,000 on a job, or zero.”
Frank Thompson, deputy director of the Kansas City Health Department, advocated for passage of the plan, calling it a vital health issue that comes up regularly with his clientele.
“(Free buses) would provide access to grocery stores, education and health centers,” he said.
He cautioned officials, however, to carefully evaluate programs that would be compromised or cut to fund the $8 million for the plan.
That was the worry of Councilwoman Katheryn Shields.
Shields abstained from the vote, arguing for closer scrutiny to the budget implications of fully funding the plan.
With job growth on the periphery of the metropolitan area outpacing that in the urban core, Shields argued that businesses on the outskirts of town should contribute to the city’s initiative.
“We provide transit for the whole region,” she said. “(We need to) make clear that stakeholder engagement, including private business, is necessary to fund workforce transit.”
Shields also was concerned that the necessary funds for the free bus program would compromise an already stretched city budget.
“It’s a great idea but the days are over where we can spend money on every great idea,” she said.
Shields said she's in favor of the idea but advocated for a review of the resolution by the city manager before the $8 million lands in the budget proposal that comes before the council at the beginning of next year.
Missing from Wednesday’s debate was the voice of suburban counties and municipalities who already benefit from existing free transit passes.
Recently, the zero fare program extended from students just within the Kansas City Public Schools boundaries to students in North Kansas City.
If this measure passes, it would only provide free passes to riders starting in Kansas City, Missouri, but Makinen said he sees metro-wide support as the natural next step.
“Right now we have to piecemeal our funding together,” he said. “We’ve already been working with Wyandotte and Johnson counties. I’ve talked to the Missouri officials. I hope to talk soon to Kansas. They’re all waiting to see what happens in Kansas City.”