Kansas City Considers Doing Away with Transit Fares Citywide

And autonomous shuttles begin trial runs in Singapore and more in this week's New Starts.

The Kansas City streetcar

The Kansas City streetcar is already free to ride, thanks to a taxing district whose revenues pay for its operation. City officials hope to use a similar method to make all buses in the city free. (Photo by Jazz Guy / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Could Kansas City Become the First Major US City with Totally Free Public Transit?

It costs only $3 a day to “RideKC” buses to and from work. A monthly pass good for riding anywhere in Kansas City, Mo., and its neighboring communities in Missouri and Kansas costs $50. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but residents of the city’s poorer East Side say that’s a large enough sum to affect their ability to apply for and hold jobs if they don’t own a car.

Meanwhile, Kansas City Area Transportation Authority buses are seldom packed. Even at rush hour, many are less than full, and some buses run almost completely empty in the middle of the day. But in downtown, thousands of residents and visitors each month gladly hop on and off the Kansas City Streetcar Authority’s Main Street streetcar line. Cost to ride the streetcar: zero.

Put these facts together and it seems like it might be a good idea if public transit everywhere in Kansas City became free to use.

According to an article in The Pitch, the city’s alt-weekly, both City Hall and the KCATA think so. And both are working on a way to implement fare-free transit citywide. Should they succeed, it would make Kansas City the first sizable city in the U.S. to make all public transit free.

A basic model for free mass transit already exists in the city. The costs of operating the streetcar are covered entirely by sales and property taxes levied in a special taxing district that extends for about a half-mile on either side of its route. A similar mechanism covering a much larger district will finance a planned southward extension of the streetcar to the Country Club Plaza and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Paying for the streetcar this way, it turned out, was more cost-effective than collecting fares from riders.

The good news? Making transit free would take only a very small bite out of the KCATA’s annual operating budget: $8 million of the $105 million the authority spends each year to run the buses comes from fares. It would represent an even smaller share of the city’s annual budget of $1.7 billion.

Robbie Makinen, the KCATA’s CEO, has already made bus riding free for veterans and students since taking charge of the agency in 2015, and the KCATA has also recently entered into a partnership with social-service providers that lets them give their clients free rides. As of now, 25 percent of all KCATA riders pay no fare. While the bulk of the KCATA’s routes operate in the city itself, it also runs service into neighboring Independence, Mo., and to Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas, all of which run their own bus systems as well. The regional bus pass is good for travel on all of these systems.

Makinen suggests in the article that some of the revenues from that expanded streetcar taxing district could be redirected towards the buses. The chair of the City Council Transportation, Infrastructure and Operations Committee, Teresa Loar, is on board with the idea: “I think it’s far more important that people be able to get to work, and get to where they need to go, than tourists going up and down Main Street,” she told The Pitch. “We want to sit down with the ATA and the streetcar folks and see where the money’s been divided up and how it’s been divided up.” But she also suggests that philanthropic support could be tapped instead. And once the streetcar extension enters service, the KCATA would save an additional $4 million by scrapping the duplicate Main Street MAX express bus service.

Also on board with the idea: newly elected Mayor Quinton Lucas. In his inauguration address this month, he said, “We will still have important work to do … to ensure we’re continuing our steps toward free public bus transit for all in our city.”

“Just because nobody else is doing it, that’s not a reason for us not to do it, ” Makinen said. “What’s wrong with trying it? What’s the worst thing that happens? It doesn’t work, and Robbie gets fired.”

Autonomous Shuttles Enter Trial Service in Singapore

Metro Report International reports that a public trial of on-demand transit using autonomous vehicles has begun in Singapore.

The trial service operates through Nov. 15 on the city’s Sentosa Island. Two minibuses and two smaller shuttles operate along a 5.7-km (3.5-mile) route connecting Silso Point, Palawan Beach, Tanjong Beach and the Sentosa Golf Club. The shuttles operate between 10 a.m. and noon and from 2 to 4 p.m.

Riders can book trips using either a smartphone app or at kiosks along the route. Rides are free. Each vehicle has an on-board attendant who can take control in the event of an emergency.

The trial service builds on test runs that began in June 2018.

Réunion Officials Seek Public Comment on Light Rail Line

The French possession of Réunion in the Indian Ocean plans to build a light rail line connecting the island’s capital of Saint-Denis with its airport. The International Railway Journal reports that the Intercommunal Community of Northern Réunion has begun the public consultation period for the project.

The planned line will run for 13 km (8.1 miles) from Le Barachois in the west to Duparc and Roland Garros Airport in the east. It will have 18 stations, including four park-and-ride facilities. Travel time end-to-end will be 25 minutes, and service will operate from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily, with six-minute headways at peak hours.

The line, which is scheduled to open for service in 2022, will serve part of a 42-km (26.1-mile) corridor that was to have been served by a tram-train line. Work on that project ended when a new government was elected in 2010.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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Tags: public transportationstreetcarskansas city

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