Government & Politics

Former KCK mayor Joe Reardon is picked to pull area transit systems together under ATA umbrella

Former Kansas City, Kan., mayor Joe Reardon is taking a new position with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.
Former Kansas City, Kan., mayor Joe Reardon is taking a new position with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. The Kansas City Star

Two years after leaving office, former Kansas City, Kan., mayor Joe Reardon is returning to public life to head the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority in a newly created position.

Reardon’s selection Wednesday is a far bigger deal than picking someone to run the local bus line, local officials say. As the ATA’s president and chief executive officer, Reardon’s job will be to expand and unify the region’s fractured public transit system at a time when transit is seen as a key driver of economic development.

Citing his experience in government and support of regional cooperation, ATA Chairman Robbie Makinen said Reardon was simply the best guy for the job.

“The bottom line,” Makinen said, “is that we’re hiring Joe Reardon because he is uniquely qualified to advance the new vision of the ATA, which is to create an integrated transportation system and for the ATA to become the regional transit authority it was meant to be.”

Reardon, 46, starts work at an annual salary of $199,000 on or before April 6. His four-year contract also includes the possibility of annual raises and bonuses, as well as a $550-a-month car allowance.

Although he has no previous experience running a bus system, that wasn’t one of the job requirements.

Rather, the ATA board conducted a national search for someone with the leadership and public relations skills who could build consensus for an improved transportation system — one that many say is underfunded, struggles in a car-centric city, and suffers from service gaps that make it challenging for suburban riders to use anytime but during the morning and afternoon rush hours

Not in the official job description, however, was perhaps the key attribute that gave Reardon an advantage over other candidates: His local connections and reputation as an inoffensive consensus builder with a solid track record of running the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., for eight scandal-free years.

“Joe fits perfectly for the new director of the ATA,” Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders said.

Said Reardon: “It’s an exciting time for transit in Kansas City, especially looking at transit from a regional perspective.”

Created by an act of Congress 50 years ago, the bistate Kansas City Area Transportation Authority was supposed to serve as an umbrella agency overseeing all public transportation in the metro area.

But that goal was never met for financial and political reasons. As the ATA set out in the 1960s to fill the gap left by failing private bus companies and a public bus system that had fallen on hard times, it hit a key roadblock right away.

Kansas City was the only local government to approve a designated bus tax to operate the Metro bus system.

Rather than spend on public transportation, Cass and Leavenworth counties chose to live without it, yet by law continue to have seats on the 10-member ATA board.

Other communities decided to fund transit out of general revenues, and either chose to contract for limited service through the ATA, run their own systems, or have some combination of the two.

The result is that there are now four separate bus systems and even more para-transit systems, each with a separate fare system. The fixed-route bus systems — the Metro in Kansas City, The Jo in Johnson County, IndeBus in Independence and UG Transit in Wyandotte County — coordinate to some extent in determining routes, scheduling and accepting each other’s transfers.

But the system is far from seamless. Reardon’s challenge will be to blend those parts, which will remain independent for now, under the new brand name “RideKC,” and link them to the new Kansas City streetcar.

“We need someone who can pull this region together under one transit authority,” said public transit advocate Janet Rogers at the Transit Action Network.

Until now, the ATA’s day-to-day operations have been the responsibility of a general manager who focused primarily on running the Metro bus system. Sam Desue, vice president of operations, has been filling that spot on an interim basis since longtime general manager Mark Huffer left last August.

Huffer’s resignation came as the ATA board worked on restructuring administrative duties to fit the board’s vision for a new ATA. Makinen wants the ATA to build closer partnerships among the local governments that already pay for transit.

That approach has already shown success, he said. More than three decades after breaking away from the ATA to start its own bus service, Johnson County recently contracted with the ATA to manage The Jo commuter bus system.

ATA board members are hoping Reardon can build on that momentum by forging stronger partnerships with Independence and Wyandotte County.

“He’s the perfect guy,” Makinen said. “What we wanted to do was raise the profile, the perception and credibility of the ATA, and we think Mayor Reardon is the gentleman to help us to do that.”

Reardon grew up in a political family. His father, Jack Reardon, was a popular three-term mayor of Kansas City, Kan., and an uncle, Bill Reardon, was a state representative.

Like his dad, Joe Reardon might easily have won a third term, but he chose to step down after eight years, then waved off invitations to run for higher office.

Since leaving office in 2013, Reardon has been a practicing attorney at McAnany, Van Cleave & Phillips, the same firm that hired him after he graduated from the University of Kansas Law School in 1994.

On the side, he’s continued to preach regional cooperation, as he did during his eight years as head of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.

That profile of him as a bridge builder grew toward the end of his second term as he and Kansas City Mayor Sly James jointly promoted Google Fiber’s decision to launch its fast Internet service here.

“Having someone who has a regional reputation is a very important thing,” said Kite Singleton, immediate past chairman of the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance.

Reardon teaches a night class on regionalism at Rockhurst University, which is where he earned his undergraduate degree. KU and the University of Missouri-Kansas City co-sponsor the class. Rockhurst has also asked him to moderate a series of frank, private discussions among area mayors and county executives on ways to better achieve areawide goals.

As CEO, Reardon will be expected to look for ways local transit agencies can save money through greater efficiencies. Johnson County, for instance, is saving around $455,000 a year by shutting down its administrative operations and letting the ATA handle that.

Budgets will only get tighter, Reardon will learn, as local, state and federal funding gets harder to come by, Sanders said.

“He’s inheriting a tough situation,” Sanders said.

Ultimately it will fall to Reardon to convince the local governments without a dedicated transit tax that they need to spend more money on public transportation, Rogers said.

That or push for a bistate transit tax, which some say is the only sensible way to pay for a transportation system that serves both the urban core and is a dependable means of getting workers to and from jobs in the suburbs.

But Reardon’s political instincts tell him it’s far too early to be pitching new taxes.

“There really needs to a thoughtful dialogue in the region first,” Reardon said. “I think the plan and the vision come first.”

As mayor and Unified Government commissioner before that, Reardon said, he grew to appreciate the importance of public transit as both a service to residents with no other way to get around, and as a driver of economic development.

Transit is especially important, he said, when it comes to retaining and attracting talented young professionals who would rather not depend on cars.

“I think a unified transit system is a key component to moving Kansas City as a region forward,” he said.

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738 or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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