Mark Huffer got his first taste of transit on that Hollywood-esque European college adventure. Traveling everywhere on transit changed his attitude towards transit and the lifestyle choice of not having an automobile all of the time. Returning to the states, he put his experience to good use in graduate school and found out that the secret to success in this industry is flexibility.
“Like a lot of people in this industry, one of the ways I’ve advanced my career is to be flexible and move,” Huffer says.
“This is my sixth system in five states, but we were in St. Louis for 10 years. I went to St. Louis right after they broke ground for the initial MetroLink alignment, so I was there for all the construction and redesign of the system. [When they] redesigned the bus system to coordinate with MetroLink. I loved my experience at St. Louis. It’s a great system. I think it’s one of the finest light rail alignments in the country.
“But when this position came open, I just felt that it was a good opportunity to pursue a CEO position. Kansas City is a great place to live. I knew a lot about Missouri politics from my experience in St. Louis and just thought it would be a good fit in terms of trying a first position as CEO,” Huffer says, noting that he thought his experience with light rail in St. Louis would help in Kansas City, where discussion had just begun on the idea of adding light rail to its system.
But light rail wouldn’t be the direction in which Huffer would take the system. Instead, he brought the Metro Area Express (MAX) to his new home and with it the benefits of bus rapid transit.
“MAX has been an unqualified success for us,” Huffer says. “It was really born out of a 2001 light rail initiative, which was the last city and ATA-led study on light rail. It was the culmination of about a two-year study led by the city and ATA, but involving community outreach throughout the community.
“We put a light rail initiative on the ballot in August of 2001 and it was defeated by 60 percent. At that point, and it was really about the third effort in the previous 10 years to bring in light rail, we said obviously the citizens have spoken, they’re not willing to invest $1 billion in light rail, they’re not willing to go from where we are to $1 billion, so what do we need to do to improve the bus system? We had some New Starts funding for light rail and wanted to be able to keep that, so we said let’s try a BRT alignment in an important corridor and see what we can do to improve service.”
From that idea the Metro Area Express was born, says Huffer. The corridor chosen for the MAX route goes right through the heart of Kansas City’s urban center. Huffer states that within that corridor itself, there are about 150,000 jobs.
“It’s an important residential community, it’s an important employment center, it connects most of the prime tourist attractions. So it’s a very important link to have a good transit connection in,” Huffer says.
“We’d always had strong service in that corridor. In fact it was the last street that had trolley service until 1957. But ridership in the corridor before MAX was about 3,100 a day and now we’re about 5,000 a day. And we’ve seen during the summer convention peak season, special events, we’ve started to see even higher ridership than that.
“What we’re finding with MAX, which we always said you’d see with rail and we’re now starting to see with MAX, we never saw that before, is that people are using it to go to special events. A very good example is last year the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra did an outdoor concert at Union Station on Memorial Day weekend. It draws about 40,000 people, and they have events going on all day. Well, people kept coming down all day long on the bus and we never really had an overcrowding issue, but all of the sudden when it let out, there were 1,000 people standing at the stop, so we obviously had to adjust and make the buses turn quicker and get them out of there.
“But they’ve been doing that concert for several years and nobody took it down when it was just bus service. But it’s MAX and they’re doing it,” Huffer says.
Huffer also explained to me that unlike the regular Metro routes, MAX meant much more to the system than just providing good transit service — it changed the face of the transit game entirely.