The state line is that go-to excuse Kansas City area officials often rely on to explain why it’s hard getting things done on a regional basis.
But what if there were a unit of government, some kind of bistate “authority,” not constrained by city, county or state boundaries to address common concerns?
Say Kansas City could look to something like New York City has in its Port Authority, a regional agency that runs airports, builds skyscrapers and does much more.
As it turns out, our area does have such a tool in the toolbox. You know it as the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.
Because it’s best known for running the Metro bus system in KC, many residents mistakenly believe that the ATA is just another arm of Kansas City government.
But in fact the ATA is a government unto itself. Created by an act of Congress at the behest of the Kansas and Missouri legislatures, the ATA has been in business for a half century. But it’s only recently that local officials began to recognize its potential for getting things done on a regional basis.
“For too long, the community has looked at the ATA as a bus service,” Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders said. “But it’s so much more than that.”
Like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Kansas City ATA cannot levy taxes. Still, it has broad powers that have been largely ignored, Sanders and others say.
It can sell revenue bonds to finance just about any project it wants, as long as it’s tied in the slightest way to transportation. Before Kemper Arena was built, ATA officials offered to help finance it.
The ATA can condemn property for its own use and has the power to own or operate “passenger transportation systems and facilities either upon, above or below ground.”
The ATA owns parking lots. It helped finance The Link between Crown Center and Union Station and operates a transit center with an early learning center.
The ATA owns miles of right of way, including the corridor that holds the popular Trolley Track Trail.
If it wanted to, the ATA could build office buildings and roads, like the two-lane, bus-only road it once proposed building to Kansas City International Airport.
And speaking of KCI, some local officials say the ATA could theoretically run the airport if Kansas City were willing to give up sole control and let it be governed on a regional basis.
Not that the KCI proposal is going anywhere anytime soon. Nor is anyone suggesting that the ATA is the magic wand to propel the region into a new golden age.
But recent, mostly private discussions about the ATA’s bistate compact have local officials brainstorming the possibilities.
“I think there’s very little limit on what the compact would allow the entity to do,” said ATA board member Michael Short, a former Platte County commissioner.
From the rooftops
For decades, the ATA was content to just be a bus service — one that saw its reach gradually contract as Johnson County, Kansas City, Kan., and Independence broke away from the Kansas City-centered Metro bus system.
But a couple of years ago, under the leadership of board chairman Robbie Makinen and co-chairman Steve Klika, the ATA tried to reverse that trend.
They began talking up the ATA’s potential for forging regional cooperation. The best way to begin demonstrating that, they believed, was to bring Johnson County and others back into the fold.
To do that, the ATA needed a new, friendlier image. Rather than bid to provide bus service to the suburbs, where it was at a competitive disadvantage with lower-cost rivals, the ATA offered to help in other ways.
The transportation authority helped Johnson County cut fuel costs by allowing The Jo buses to park at the ATA’s bus barn downtown during the day.
The ATA and other transit systems began pooling purchases of buses and supplies as a way to save money.
That plan was to position the ATA as the umbrella agency best able to coordinate various elements of a fractured mass transit network, and it’s paying off.
After more than 30 years of managing its own bus system, Johnson County has turned over management of The Jo to the ATA. Discussions with the transit systems in Independence and Kansas City, Kan., are also under way, as is the ATA working with the Kansas City Streetcar Authority.
To Makinen, those deals are the foundation for a broader discussion on how else the ATA can foster regional cooperation.
“It’s a powerful document,” Makinen said of the ATA’s charter. “I keep shouting from the rooftops, ‘Someone read this thing who is smarter than me.’”
That job is falling to Joe Reardon, the ATA’s new president and CEO.
Naturally, the former two-term mayor of Kansas City, Kan., has more immediate priorities before looking to expand the ATA’s scope
He needs to shore up the ATA’s finances and build an expanded mass transit system that does a better job of getting people to and from work, be it on buses, streetcars or commuter rail.
“An integrated transit system is a key component for moving the region forward,” he said.
Convincing suburban officials to spend more money on transit won’t be easy. But Reardon is seen as a guy who can build the kind of strong relationships needed to achieve that and possibly lead to other projects beyond transit.
“The employment of Reardon may change the perception of an agency that, in the minds of the public anyway, has been dominated by Kansas City, Mo.,” said Kansas City Councilman Dick Davis.
“That may mean that we have a better opportunity to get things done on a regional basis, and conceptually it does.”
Himself a former general manager of the ATA, Davis cites the bistate transit authority in St. Louis as an example of what a transit agency like the ATA could do eventually.
Metro Transit not only operates the bus and light-rail system in St. Louis. It also runs the downtown airport, operates the tram system in the Gateway Arch and takes tourists on riverboat rides, among other things.
The ATA isn’t looking to provide boat rides, but officials are looking for new revenue streams and to promote job growth that doesn’t involve buses and trains.
Real estate development might be one, said Dick Jarrold, the transportation authority’s vice president of regional planning and development.
ATA owns two prime pieces of property in and near downtown Kansas City that developers might be interested in.
One is the bus transfer station at 10th and Main streets, which is being phased out to make way for the streetcar and because of revamped bus routes downtown.
The other is a 190-space parking lot at Third Street and Grand Boulevard, which is where the bus and streetcar systems will connect when streetcars begin rolling later this year.
“We’re open to every viable proposal,” Jarrold said.
But key among them is the likelihood that commercial or residential buildings will rise on those corners, with the ATA as a partner or a seller.
As for the ATA’s bigger dreams of being a greater force in the region, they will probably have to wait a while.
“I think the first thing the ATA can be used for is a comprehensive regional transportation system,” said Mayor Sly James.
The idea that the ATA might run KCI, as some top officials suggest privately, is a flight of fancy at this point, James said.
Not only is there “no meat” on those bones, he said, “I wouldn’t even call it a skeleton.”