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.
From Rail to MAX
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.
“It has really helped with the ridership, but it has been an image changer as much as anything because people have said there are ways to do transit better than the way we have done. Now what do we do to improve MAX? The next MAX line, how do we take it up incrementally to even a higher level?
“I think that’s going to be looking at additional BRT enhancements on future corridors. We’ll probably be doing some enhancements on the existing MAX corridor, but I think it’s also part of the big issue of why light rail is such a hot topic in this town right now,” Huffer says.
A Sense of Place
It’s not often when I get into a city that transit just kind of jumps out at me. It was late when I got into Kansas City and I decided to take a walk to a nearby restaurant and get something to drink. At the end of the block there was a well-lit transit shelter with a towering marker next to it proudly declaring the MAX route stopped here. Mark Huffer explained to me that this iconic stop was part of their BRT plan all along.
“One of the things we tried to achieve with MAX is a sense of identity and a sense of place,” says Huffer. “We wanted, just as when you are in Washington, D.C., and you can walk out of a hotel and find a Metro station, we wanted somebody to go to a concierge and say how do I get to the plaza and him to be able to say go out to the street, go two blocks and turn right and you’ll see it. You’ll know it’s there.”
Huffer explained that for MAX the agency did a few things differently than their normal Metro bus routes to make it more easily identifiable. They gave the buses a unique shape and paint scheme, with MAX labeled all over the vehicle. Huffer explains that for MAX, they wanted riders to be able to see the bus coming and know it was different from the other 200 buses in the fleet.
And he says, the stations needed to look different as well. “Each of the stations are clearly marked. They have a station name much like light rail, so it’s not just go to the corner of 38th and Main, they’re actually named Midtown or The Plaza or Crown Center. They have their own name clearly identified in the shelters.”
And that marker I mentioned, as Huffer told me, it’s the system’s icon. “It’s a 17-foot high marker. It’s got the MAX logo at the top [and] relevant information in terms of schedules and connecting buses. But within that marker itself is the real-time information. There’s an LED display that says ‘First MAX bus to the Plaza five minutes. Second MAX bus to the Plaza 20 minutes.’
“It’s very visible and clearly identified, it’s got its own markings, it’s lit, which most of our shelters aren’t. So it gives you a sense of security, a sense of place — a sense of comfort that you are in the right place. You know if you’re there, you know a MAX bus is going to come by.”
Huffer says that the real-time information is one of the keys to the MAX success, “a seven-minute wait is a lot different when you know it’s seven minutes, than if you get there and you are questioning, did it already come, have I just missed it, is it late.
“We have some fairly long headways late at night, and we do actually go down to half-hour headways, but if you get there and you know you’ve got 22 minutes, then you know you can cross the street and get a cup of coffee, come back and catch your bus. And that’s made a big difference in terms of attractions on the ridership.”
One of the things I always like to do is ask the officials we interview if there is something about their system that we hadn’t discussed that they wanted to talk about. Mark Huffer’s response was to ask me if I knew about their daycare center.
“A couple of years ago we built and opened a daycare center and transit center combination on one of our busiest bus routes,” explains Huffer.
“Our busiest bus route goes right in front of it, connecting it with another of our busiest crosstown [routes].
“When people talk about one of the obstacles for employment, it tends to be affordable and effective childcare and transportation. And so in this facility, which is just a world-class facility they have, both mothers or caregivers come in and can drop a child off. It’s a Headstart program, so it’s an early development learning center.”
Huffer told me that while they contract out the operations for the facility, they do own and maintain it. It also doubles as a place the agency can hold town hall meetings with its riders.
The facility was built from scratch with a daycare in mind, so the drinking fountains, windows and the like are all situated at a level easy to reach by children. And with 100 preschoolers in it, Metro’s daycare is being put to good use.
“It’s been an extremely popular program,” says Huffer. “It’s a wonderful facility, one that we’re very proud of.”
Mark Huffer came to Kansas City in the wake of its agency looking into bringing light rail to the area. And now, after seven ballot initiatives, the voters have approved a plan to put light rail in place. The thing is that neither Huffer, the Area Transportation Authority nor the city of Kansas City had anything to do with any of those initiatives.
“I would say that we are in one of the most unique positions I’ve ever seen a transit system anywhere [be in],” Huffer admits. “We have a voter-approved light rail initiative of which the transit system did not support it at the time of the vote.
“It is a citizen-led initiative that while it certainly has some merits in parts of the alignment, the proposed alignment is 27 miles long, which is beyond what is realistic in terms of an initial starter line. [It] has numerous flaws in terms of operational and funding assumptions, has really had no extensive fiduciary studies or engineering studies and yet is very specific in the ballot in terms of the streets it would operate on, station locations, technology that would be employed or deployed.
“So while it is sort of in one aspect very vague and not particularly well studied, there is a great deal of specificity in the ballot language that makes it hard to deviate [from]. Because that is what was in the language and that is what was voted [on]. And the other really significant concern to us is that the funding mechanism for this is the 3/8 sales tax which currently is being used to fund about 40 to 50 percent of the existing bus service.”
Yes, you heard that correctly. The light rail initiative that passed did so without any fiduciary, engineering or environmental studies done before hand. And building it would take away half of the operational funds from the existing bus system. All of this happened from an initiative on the front and back of one sheet of paper. To say that Huffer and the ATA were caught off guard by its approval is an understatement. In the end, this being the seventh initiative from the same citizen, they just expected it to fail.
“I think that’s exactly what happened,” says Huffer. “Our board took a resolution against it. The chamber did. The city did. I mean, people spoke out against the plan, but not a lot of cash was raised to run a campaign against it.
“And I think it was just what you said, people just said this is number seven. None of them have passed before. This one won’t pass. So when it did it caught everybody by surprise, including the council, the mayor and certainly us.”
So what does this initiative mean for the bus system as it is currently written? Well, unless changes are made, the future is pretty grim. On April 1, 2009 when the funding would be diverted to the light rail project, the system would have to reduce service by 50 percent and Huffer says that just can’t happen.
“I think it brings about the very question of the survival of the authority at that point. And obviously from an FTA perspective, environmental justice considerations, they’re not going to allow us to shut down 50 percent of the existing bus service to build a light rail system somewhere in the future. So there are a lot of issues with it that have to be worked out.”
But the agency isn’t left without options. They have already begun the process to bring different legislation before the voters in an attempt to present a more palatable plan. Huffer says they still have another 1/8 cent in their sales tax they can tap into (they are currently using 7/8 of an authorized penny). The agency is also looking at a smaller light rail plan stretched over a longer period of time so that they won’t have to divert as much of its funding towards its creation.
Huffer is also very positive in that, while the initiative wasn’t the one he would have wanted to pass, the voters did make a statement in favor of light rail.
“I think there is an overwhelming mandate from the elected officials and the business community and the citizens that have said we want light rail, this is how we’ve voted on it. If this isn’t workable, tell us what is, but don’t leave light rail out of it. And so I think we’re going to have to build the system around some form of light rail,” says Huffer.
“Which again for us is why [even though] there’s lots of flaws in the plan and there’s enough concern about the bus system, it’s an incredible opportunity.”