Kansas City bus service should be free for everyone. In the future, it could be

Riding the bus in Kansas City should be free.

A radical idea? No. For more than a year, transit officials and area politicians have quietly talked about making at least some Kansas City Area Transportation Authority bus routes permanently fare-free.

This week, Robbie Makinen, the CEO of KCATA, weighed in on the idea on KCUR. “Public transit needs to be free,” he said. Mayor-elect Quinton Lucas chimed in on Twitter. “Robbie’s right,” Lucas wrote. “Let’s make it happen.”

Agreed. Within a year, KCATA should establish fare-free routes for popular destinations, with a plan to eventually extend free service everywhere.

Transitioning to free bus service need not be complicated. The 2019 operating budget for the KCATA is roughly $106 million. Of that, only $9.1 million — less than 10% — comes from the fare box.

Finding $10 million or $12 million for free bus service is doable. Eliminating under-used routes or using more efficient buses could make up some of the difference. Modest administrative reductions could play a role. Businesses could help.

KCATA is in the middle of an overall redesign, and eliminating fares should absolutely be a part of that discussion. The benefits of free bus service are clear.

The streetcar shows that free rides are an effective incentive for users of mass transit, both for convenience and cost. Far more people would hop on the bus if they didn’t need to navigate a complicated fare schedule or find $1.50 for a ride.

Makinen says buses carrying cash are a tempting target for thieves, endangering his drivers. Free service would help eliminate that risk. For that reason alone, fare-free buses are a good idea.

Scrapping fares also would have an environmental upside. Buses are polluting vehicles, but free service would attract more riders, which would take at least some cars off the road. That would lower greenhouse gas emissions, make some streets safer for pedestrians and potentially save wear and tear on potholed roads.

Naysayers will point out the obvious: Free bus rides aren’t really free. Taxpayers subsidize the service, providing KCATA with about $60 million a year from sales taxes in Kansas City. Taxpayers might have to spend a little more for free mass transit.

If ridership goes up dramatically, costs could go up as well, including those for security. KCATA will need firm projections of those costs and a plan for how to offset them if it moves to a zero-fare model.

In a perfect world, users would pay for transit. But Kansas City has rightly decided that bus transportation is such an important service — particularly for lower-income residents — that it deserves public support, just like the police department or fire department.

KCATA has already experimented with free service. A pilot program for some students proved so popular that it’s being expanded.

Free bus service was available on Election Day. Furloughed federal workers rode for free for a month. Military personnel ride for free now.

The new mayor and City Council, and other officials in the metro area, can and should make free bus service a priority. It’s an attainable objective that would have a significant and immediate impact and would improve public transportation in Kansas City.