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.