Finally, a bold plan emerges to improve regional transit

08/23/2014 10:00 AM

08/23/2014 3:00 PM

Mass transit in the Kansas City area is a pitiful shell of what it could be.

Bus routes aren’t well connected among cities or across the state line. Local funding varies widely among the four bus systems. Progress is made in fits and starts, seldom through well-planned strategies. As a result, the region’s taxpayers spend far too much money building new roads and expanding older ones.

The lack of top-notch transit has created low expectations among too many members of the public. They don’t expect to be able to quickly get from here to there, at a reasonable cost, on a comfortable bus, so why bother even trying?

But much to their credit, local officials for months have been working on a bold plan to better coordinate efforts to improve public transportation.

No one should expect quick results or magic upgrades. However, with the resignation of Mark Huffer as general manager of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, it’s possible to soon put in place key players who would be interested in moving toward a more unified transit system.

The ATA needs a new chief executive officer who’s going to aggressively pursue linking services provided by buses, streetcars and the hoped-for commuter rail lines in Jackson County. The ATA also needs someone fully engaged in working with existing bus systems in Johnson and Wyandotte counties as well as Independence.

The ATA’s positive bid to reorganize its functions and become the coordinating body for metrowide transit should include these goals:

Provide a so-called regional fare pass to make it easier for regular passengers to use all modes of transit to get around the area.

Improve funding, ideally with a regional tax but more likely through increased local revenue from county and city governments.

Add bus routes, especially in Johnson County, that link to routes going to Kansas City as well as Lee’s Summit along the Interstate 435 corridor.

Reduce expenses by having administrative duties for all transit agencies carried out at the ATA. The ATA and Johnson County already are discussing that option.

Expand the MAX bus rapid transit lines, now on Main Street and Troost Avenue, to Prospect Avenue and perhaps along major east-west streets.

Some strong leaders have emerged to meet these challenges. They include Robbie Makinen, chairman of the ATA board, and Steve Klika, a Johnson County commissioner and ATA board member. It’s also encouraging to see officials with The JO involved in these discussions.

They and others must maintain the momentum built up in recent months behind a more regional view of mass transit. This doesn’t mean, for instance, that the ATA will operate buses for The JO. But better relationships need to exist among the local authorities.

Opponents exist. Some don’t want to spend more on buses or streetcars. Others worry about the ATA’s capabilities. This camp has long included top Johnson County officials, including commission Chair Ed Eilert, who have not provided crucial leadership in promoting areawide solutions to issues such as transit.

Still, more so than in years, bus authorities are talking to one another. They have a golden chance to pursue strategies that will provide better service to passengers on both sides of the state line for years to come.

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