© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Head Of Kansas City's Bus System Lost His Sight But Has A Clear Vision For Free Public Transit

Robbie Makinen, CEO of KCATA from 2016-2022.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
KCATA CEO Robbie Makinen is toward free public transportation city-wide.

Robbie Makinen, CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, has more important matters to discuss than his inability to see. Ask about his vision loss, and he'll redirect the conversation.

Yes, he said, he woke up completely blind one morning in 2013, but, "let’s talk about free transit."

In the four years that he's led the KCATA, he’s pushed for zero-fare public transportation. He and other advocates began by giving veterans free rides—two million rides and counting. They've also added free rides for high school students in certain parts of town, and for clients of safety net providers with the Health Forward Foundation.

In all, these three groups account for 25 percent of the KCATA's ridership and are serving as a test market.

The initiative is a top priority for Makinen, and not only because it serves the blind.

In 2012, Makinen had already lost vision in one eye to Ischemic Optic Neuropathy, that is, the blood supply to his optic nerve was cut off. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic said not to worry; usually, just one eye goes.

But that wasn't the case for him.

A change in perspective

Unable to drive, Makinen found himself using the city's paratransit system at a time when no comprehensive map existed of the various modes of public transportation, and at every city border, the cost and rules changed.

"From a paratransit standpoint, I could go to the courthouse in Independence, and then once I'm there, I'm stuck. I don't qualify for their service, so I can't get around. I'm standing on the corner about crying, like what do I do now?" he said of his long-ago attempt to ride as a blind person.

Under his leadership, free apps clear up the confusion.

Makinen has been in the lifelong business of helping others, so while he did spend some time mourning the loss of his vision, the turn of events didn't derail him.

"You're either a boat anchor or sail. Pick one, right? And I'm not going through anything any different than anyone else is going through. Everybody has their traumatic experience, everybody has stuff happen to them," he said.

"Am I going to lay back in the fetal position and cry? Well, that didn’t work. Or am I going to be a sail and get up and use it?"

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Robbie Makinen heads the KCATA. He lost his sight in 2013.

Growing up in Independence, Makinen took in stray dogs and, at his father's urging, donated the contents of his piggy bank to the Muscular Dystrophy Association's Labor Day telethon. He became an Eagle Scout.

As an adult, he sought jobs in social work in his early 20s, then later directed the learning center at Ozanam Children's Services and served as the chair of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority board. He serves on the board of the Boy Scouts of America Heart of America Council.

So, the significant change in his life was not his passion, it was his perspective.

He'd been a ladder-climber, he said, always wanting a bigger car, a bigger house, more money.

"But if you only eat from that side of the plate," he said, "you're never going to get full. You've got to eat from the other side of the plate, which is, what is it that feeds your soul?"

He thinks that it usually takes trauma for people to gain that kind of perspective.

"Your wife comes home with a lump on her breast; your father has Alzheimer's; you lose your vision, whatever that may be. Then all of a sudden, everybody gets perspective. My prayer to everybody is: get it sooner," Makinen said.

'The biggest asset'

When community members are able to move about the city easily and inexpensively, he said, their access to healthcare, jobs, and education improves, and with it, their lives.

"Public transit is either the biggest barrier or the biggest asset. We just have to pick which side we want to be on," he said.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas backs the idea of zero-fare transportation, even mentioning it in his August 1 inauguration speech.

Less than 10 percent of the KCATA's annual $106 million budget comes from the $1.50 bus fares.

Makinen said that figure is not a big deal when measured against the cost of processing the fares and maintaining the fare boxes.

Best of all, he said, a family spending $2000 a year on public transportation would be able to use that amount other necessities. And, he pointed out, that money would stay right here in Kansas City, so nothing is lost.

He asked, "When you can affect more people's lives in a day than most people get to do in a lifetime, what are you going to do with that?"

Makinen's answer to his own question? Be a sail.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.