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The Head Of Kansas City’s Bus System Says Public Transportation Should Be Free

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The CEO of RideKC said he considers public transportation a 'social service.'

Free public transportation is a bold initiative, and the head of Kansas City's regional transit agency thinks it's viable for Kansas City.

Robbie Makinen, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, has been a leading proponent of several programs aiming to improve the efficiency of bus service in the region.

But he wants improvements to go beyond the physical transportation itself.

"You know someone's going to yell at me for this, but you know what? Public transportation should be free as far as I'm concerned," Makinen said.

Makinen said he wants the Kansas City metro to be one of the few in the country to offer riders an entirely free, multifaceted transit system. It could be done, he said, by diversifying KCATA's revenue through a coalition between the cities in the metro and the private sector.

Currently, military personnel and select students in Kansas City receive free bus fare through external partnerships. Partnering with more organizations could make the free rides an all-inclusive opportunity, Makinen said.

“If everybody had access to the region for free, imagine what that could do for workforce flows,” he said, adding that he wants public transportation to be at the forefront of the conversation when city officials and investors consider economic development, affordable housing and job access.

“Public transportation can no longer be an afterthought,” he said. “It has to be part of the incentives package.”

Aside from providing a desirable service, eliminating fares would reduce safety risks for transit operators, improve efficiency, increase ridership and reduce the volume of vehicles on the roadways, among other things.  

Fare-free riding won’t be part of a redesign currently underway at KCATA, which is asking community members to take a survey on how to better serve riders. The overhaul is slated to roll out over the next three years, and would be one of the largest in the agency's history. The project will improve connectivity by offering more modes of transportation than bus service.

While Makinen is excited about the changes that are coming, he didn’t mince words when saying he wants to change the “politically engineered” system.

“Welcome to the end of your comfort zone,” Makinen said. “That's where innovation, that's where progress, that's where everything lives. Let's keep pushing forward.”

Robbie Makinen spoke with KCUR on a recent episode of Up to Date. Listen to the entire conversation here.

Elizabeth Ruiz is a freelance producer at KCUR 89.3; you can reach her at elizabeth@kcur.org.