Government & Politics

One man’s blindness helps brighten prospects for KC transit

Robbie Makinen already thought Kansas City’s fractured public transit system was lacking, and as chairman of the KC Kansas City Area Transportation Authority he was trying to bring order to the chaos. But after he was struck blind last year and suddenly had to depend on that system, his passion deepened.
Robbie Makinen already thought Kansas City’s fractured public transit system was lacking, and as chairman of the KC Kansas City Area Transportation Authority he was trying to bring order to the chaos. But after he was struck blind last year and suddenly had to depend on that system, his passion deepened. The Kansas City Star

It was a nasty split that some thought would never be reconciled.

Yet 33 years after breaking away from the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, Johnson County is thinking of hiring the ATA to run its bus service.

There’s no talk of merging the ATA’s Metro bus service and The Jo, which would retain its independence. But if approved, the management agreement that comes up for discussion this week would be a key step toward the unified, metro-wide public transit system envisioned when the ATA was created in 1960s.

Credit for that, elected officials on both sides of the state line say, goes to a little-known public official with a knack for bringing people together.

ATA chairman Robbie Makinen is a 50-year-old former social worker whose sudden loss of his vision last year made him dependent on public transportation and now feeds his passion for fixing Kansas City’s fractured transit system.

“I may be blind,” he said, “but my eyes are wide open now.”

By allowing the ATA to take over administration of The Jo and the county’s para-transit system, Johnson County stands to save around $500,000 a year that might be pumped back into better bus service.

It’s the kind of win-win strategy that Makinen hopes the ATA can replicate to build closer ties with other transportation agencies in the area.

“Without him over there, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” said ATA co-chairman and Johnson County Commissioner Steve Klika.

Even before Makinen lost most of his eyesight, he had a reputation for getting people to work together.

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders appointed him to the 10-member, bistate ATA board seven years ago — not because he was an expert on public transportation, but because he’d previously been successful at improving relations between the county and its 19 municipalities.

Some of them had felt ignored for too long, and Makinen made them feel welcome.

“When I looked at the ATA,” Sanders said, “it was the same broken model.”

They met while Sanders was the county prosecutor and Makinen was working with troubled and abused teenagers at Ozanam, the nonprofit, social-service agency in south Kansas City.

Sanders was impressed by Makinen’s intelligence, humor and selflessness.

“He had a loving, caring manner with those kids,” Sanders said.

Makinen also liked Sanders but was surprised when, after Sanders won the county executive’s job in 2006, he offered him a job as the county’s chief of intergovernmental affairs and economic development.

“When the county executive asked me to work for him,” Makinen recalled, “I said ‘Why, I don’t know anything about government.’ And he said, ‘What we need to do in Jackson County is rebuild relationships.’ ”

Makinen’s rebuilding program at the ATA has been all about establishing trust between the ATA and the cities and counties that need or provide transit service.

During the 1970s, there was one area bus system, the Metro, and it was run by the ATA.

Now there are four bus systems. Complaints about poor service and high costs led Johnson County to break away from the ATA and start its own bus service in 1981. Kansas City, Kan., later did the same, as did Independence in 2012.

That Independence left during Makinen’s watch stung.

“To me, the dominoes were starting to fall, and they were falling the wrong way,” said Makinen, who was elected ATA chairman in 2010. “The issue was, how do we make them start falling the right way.”

Makinen and Klika decided their strategy would be to reposition the ATA. Even though it was created by Congress to provide transit to people on both sides of the state line, the ATA had become synonymous with the bus system it operates inside Kansas City.

“All I would hear,” said Klika, “is the ATA just wants our money.”

Makinen was in the midst of trying to change that perception with a series of meetings with Kansas and Missouri officials when he lost his eyesight.

Two years ago, the blood flow to the optic nerve attached to his right eye shut off inexplicably overnight, a condition known as ischemic optic neuropathy.

As scary as that was, Makinen was comforted when his doctors offered assurances that rarely did it happen to both eyes.

But in June 2013, his left eye went foggy as well.

Recently, Makinen’s face reddened and he choked back tears as he recalled his first thoughts. Not only would he never be able to make out the faces of his wife and two boys again, he said, but he also feared that he wouldn’t be able to provide for his family.

“I can’t drive, I’m terrified,” Makinen remembers thinking. “What am I going to do? I love my job.”

But he was back at work full time a couple of months later, newly dependent on the very public transportation system he’d been championing but rarely used.

And it was revealing.

Before he lost his sight, he’d heard many stories about the service gaps that make it a struggle if not impossible for some people to get to their jobs on the bus. Now, Makinen was suddenly experiencing the system’s shortcomings first-hand.

To use the ATA’s Share-a-Fare system for people with disabilities to get to and from work, he needed to make appointments at least one day ahead. But because paratransit services in the metro area are splintered between several agencies with distance limits and sometimes residency requirements, it was hard traversing local and state boundaries.

“Try and get from Johnson County to Independence,” he said. “Try to get from Lee’s Summit to Independence — you practically need a passport.”

A Missouri-based driver once dropped Makinen off eight blocks from his destination on the Kansas side — a transit meeting, as it turns out — because of some rule. Klika came and got him.

“This has gotta change,” Makinen told his fellow ATA board members after that happened.

And now it looks as if change could be coming thanks to Makinen’s drive to fix the system and his message that the ATA’s aim isn’t to grab anyone’s tax dollars but to make public transit more efficient.

“Whenever Robbie meets people,” said former county spokesman Dan Ferguson, “his first question literally is what can I do to help.”

Makinen said there are things the ATA does in its sleep, like maintain buses and run a call center, that others might not be as able to afford or have as much the expertise in.

The Johnson County agreement grew out of an earlier initiative during Makinen’s watch. Allowing Johnson County’s downtown commuter buses to lay over at the ATA bus barn between the morning and evening rush hours saved fuel costs and made for less wear and tear.

Nothing’s certain, but those close to the situation think the latest Johnson County agreement just might go through and lead to other dominoes falling the right way.

“Here we’re on the cusp of achieving something that nobody thought was possible,” Sanders said, “and the reason was Robbie.”

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

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