As Kansas City’s Streetcar Expands, Its Buses Suffer
On Wednesday morning, The Kansas City Star published a detailed report on the city’s suffering bus system. Riders complain about a lack of service and dependability and report that buses are often late, arrive infrequently, and sometimes simply do not arrive at all. Kansas City Area Transit Authority (KCATA) officials state that service decreased because of the COVID-19 pandemic and has not returned to its pre-pandemic levels because of staffing and funding concerns, in addition to decreased ridership. The Star piece quotes experts who argue that increased service and dependability are the keys to increasing the usage of public transportation.
Meanwhile, the KC Streetcar Authority has broken ground on a 351 million-dollar expansion, financed by $171 million in federal funds, with the rest coming from a new transportation development district (TDD). This special taxing district will levy a 1% sales tax on areas around Main Street, generating millions in revenue to maintain the streetcar’s “free” admission status.
As Show-Me Institute analysts have argued in the past, the KC Streetcar has failed to generate economic growth and raise property values and does not improve Kansas City’s transit system as a whole. Throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at expanding the streetcar not only continues to grow a poor transit system but also neglects the more valuable bus system. Between 2016 and 2020, buses were the primary form of transportation for about 8,500 commuters in the Kansas City metro area. In contrast, there were only about 250 commuters in the entire metro area who got to work using the streetcar. In addition, the KCATA has an annual operating budget of $57.6 million, which is only about a fifth of what is being spent to expand the streetcar.
Kansas City’s MAX bus system is supposed to be a form of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), but with buses only coming every half hour on two of the three MAX routes, it fails in this respect. These routes need more frequent service, which means more buses and more drivers. Instead of continuing to pour money into an overpriced, ineffective streetcar system, Kansas City should consider diverting funds to its buses, which could be improved at only a fraction of the cost of current streetcar spending.
Politicians like grandiose plans, shiny new objects, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and spending exorbitant amounts of other people’s money. What their constituents need is a bus system that runs effectively so that they can schedule their day properly. Politicians seek the former at the expense of the latter, and it ends up hurting the very people they most often claim to be helping.