Heading to Kansas City in the wake of a subzero cold snap in Wisconsin, I realized that it is probably in one of the better places for a city in the country. The weather, while it can get cold, isn’t nearly as chilling as more northern locations and without the geographic limitations of some places, the city has all the room it needs to grow. Mind you, while this makes for a great city location, it also means that transit can be a tough sell.
“What I will tell you is that KC … it’s a tough town to run transit in because of the way we have embraced our growth strategies,” says Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (also known as the Metro) General Manager Mark Huffer.
“We’re not limited geographically by an ocean or a mountain range and it’s just very easy to just continue to spread out further and further.
“Every direction you go you can just continue to see development and housing and retail further and further from the urban core. KC boasts that we have more freeway miles per capita than any place in the world. And in spite of how large and how spread out the region is, by automobile you can get anywhere in 20 to 25 minutes,” Huffer says.
Huffer explained to me that the low population density is the biggest challenge to transit in the area. Kansas City, Mo., hosts a population of around 440,000 in an area of about 330 square miles in size, while in comparison St. Louis has about the same population size in 53 square miles.
Coincidentally enough, Kansas City’s and the Metro’s most pronounced limiting feature isn’t one you can see, but shows up clearly on every map — the state line between Missouri and Kansas.
“The state line in general is a very significant psychological border in the community,” Huffer says. “Missouri tends to have most of the regional assets in terms of the airport and sports stadium and the art museums and the symphony halls, and yet the Kansas side has some of the most attractive suburban communities. And so state line discussions come up in almost every civic discourse on any major issue.
“In terms of transit, what it does is it prevents us from having a seamless system that operates from a Missouri suburb into a Kansas employment center or vice versa. And that’s very challenging for transit customers because they don’t have an opportunity to board a single bus and make a long trip.
“The services are coordinated the best we can, but it’s still clumsy at best. [Neighboring] Johnson County, [Kan.,] while it traditionally has been a suburban community, is really growing in terms of retail and office and has become a very large employment center in its own right.
“Their service is very much geared towards commuter express service to get residents into downtown Kansas City in the morning and back home in the evening. And so it’s very difficult to use transit as a Missouri resident to go to employment centers in Johnson County,” says Huffer.
Huffer states that there are always challenges in dealing with basically an interstate system because while he does have to deal with both state legislatures, his funding comes wholly from the Missouri side of the border.
“Our funding is very unique in its own right. We get the preponderance of our funding from the city of Kansas City. Kansas City is the only entity that has a dedicated tax for transit. We operate in 10 other communities, but they essentially buy that service on an annual basis out of GR funding. Kansas City represents about 92 percent of all of our local funding. The other 10 combined only represent 8 percent,” Huffer says.
Huffer notes that while they do get state funding from Missouri, they aren’t a direct recipient of any state funding from Kansas, despite running service there. Instead, Kansas’ two transit districts, Johnson County and Unified Government, receive direct state subsidies and in turn purchase service from the Kansas City ATA.
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