MO: Transit board puts off deciding on the fate of Kansas City’s zero-fare bus system

Dec. 21, 2023
Kansas City’s bi-state public transportation agency has delayed until late January at the earliest a decision on whether to begin planning for the return of fares on RideKC buses.

Kansas City’s bi-state public transportation agency has delayed until late January at the earliest a decision on whether to begin planning for the return of fares on RideKC buses.

Frank White III, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, had asked the KCATA board of commissioners for permission to begin studying what it would take to reinstall a fare collection system and what to charge riders, along with a public relations effort to see what the public and the agency’s local funding partners thought of the idea.

Under that plan, fares might return in 2025.

Board chair Beverly Bynum announced at the outset of Wednesday’s regular monthly meeting her intention to delay action until next month. But after the board listened to comments from 10 people who support continuation of the four-year-old no-fare policy and heard a KCATA consultant discuss the impact that renewing fare would have on the KCATA’s finances, it was unclear even to board members what comes next.

Instead, White and the commissioners engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about the need to fill an annual $10 million gap in the KCATA’s operating budget. Charging bus fares once again might help, but that wouldn’t cover the whole shortfall, reducing ridership by as much as a third, according to the consultant’s report.

To commissioner Michael Shaw, that gap suggested that the KCATA needs to take a broader look at its finances and work harder in seeking other sources of revenue that might alleviate the need to start charging fares again.

“Have we done the homework and figured out what we need to do, what other resources and strategies are in place, before we say this is the policy decision that needs to be made?” Shaw said. “I don’t think we should look at solutions in silos. They have to be looked at collectively and I don’t think we’ve done that homework at this juncture.”

Shaw is public works director for Kansas City, which provides more than half of the KCATA operating budget through two sales taxes. Mayor Quinton Lucas is a big supporter of fare-free buses.

Several of the other nine commissioners joined with Shaw in saying they needed more context before moving forward. What did the people who preceded them on the board have in mind when they put the free fare policy in place? Was it supposed to last forever or end at some point?

Not even Bynum could remember, and she was on the board at the time the policy was adopted, which was shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic began. The federal aid money that poured in after the virus hit have propped up the KCATA’s finances ever since, but those dollars are going away.

“Zero fare is not free – period. Somebody pays for it,” Bynum reminded those who are in support of, as one speaker put it, “fare-free buses forever.”

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