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KCATA relied on wishful thinking for no-fare bus rides. Now, harsh reality sinks in | Opinion

Almost four years ago, I argued in a column in The Star that Kansas City’s move to eliminate bus fare was ill-considered, unsupported by research and that the city needed “to consider all the options and trade-offs before adopting such a significant policy change.”

The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority did no such thing. Instead, it relied on a fatally flawed economic impact study by the University of Missouri-Kansas City Center for Economic Information. The study’s errors were numerous, including using an ill-suited economic model that projected local GDP would increase by $11 million in what they called “a very conservative estimate.” Howard Wall, director and chief economist of the Center for Regional Economic Research at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, read the analysis and called it “garbage.”

The full study was not published when then-KCATA CEO Robbie Makinen made his decision. Instead he relied on a four-page “draft mini report” that was not public at the time. The final report was released the following month. Why was Makinen in a hurry? Waiting until the report was completed and publicly available may have resulted in a better outcome.

What should have been a red flag for Makinen — or anyone else, had they had access to it — was the conclusion. Instead of a summary or analysis of the information that came before, the report concluded by focusing solely on the writings of Henri Lefebvre, a French Marxist philosopher who died in 1991.

Seriously.

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

Now in 2024, after years of offering free bus service, we know what could happen. Passenger and operator safety concerns rose. Bus operators have been assaulted so often that the KCATA has increased its security force. Ridership dropped. Unsurprisingly, Makinen lost his job in 2022.

(Note: I am relying on media reports here, as a Jan. 16 open records request I made to the KCATA remains unfulfilled. I asked for security contracts, incidence reports and copies of annual reports — which do not appear on the agency’s website.)

The KCATA is now wrestling with a $10 million gap in its operating budget. The COVID-19 relief money it’s been using to cover operating losses will run out by 2025.

As a result, new CEO Frank White III has asked the transit authority’s board for permission to study reinstating fares to cover the shortfall. The board is dragging its feet — putting off a vote on the matter again until at least the end of February.

One of the current KCATA board members, Michael Shaw, is at least asking the right questions, according to The Star:

“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.”

The former chair of the board, Melissa Bynum, pointed out what we already know: “Zero fare is not free — period. Somebody pays for it.”

White should be congratulated for seeking such a study. Shaw and Bynum are right to urge diligence and to point out that the money must come from somewhere.

Had the previous KCATA wrestled seriously with these questions a few years ago, the organization would not be in this mess now.

Patrick Tuohey is co-founder of Better Cities Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit focused on municipal policy solutions, and a senior fellow at the Show-Me Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to Missouri state policy work.