Kansas City Prioritizes Transportation Few Use
Kansas City residents rely on well-functioning transportation for virtually every aspect of their lifestyle, from getting to work to spending a night on the town. But to keep the transportation system working, the Kansas City region needs to make regular investments. Unfortunately, the most recent plan for transportation spending in the Kansas City area shows a troubling disconnect between the infrastructure taxpayers actually use and where city leaders want to put taxpayers’ money.
Not all transportation modes are of equal importance in the Kansas City area. The region’s dispersed population and employment mean that most residents use highways and streets to commute. In Jackson, Clay, and Platte Counties, more than 90% of commuters drove to get to work (according to U.S. Census data from 2009 to 2013). The next most popular form of getting to work is actually just not going anywhere (that is, working at home). Aside from commuting, much of the metro area’s freight traffic uses the highways, and the region’s bus networks also make use of city streets.
Highways and streets are indisputably the most-used part of Kansas City’s transportation network. The only rival for importance may be the freight rail network, as Kansas City is the nation’s second largest freight rail hub. That might lead one to predict that most of the spending in the Kansas City area’s Transportation Improvement Program from 2016–2020, which includes, “. . . all federally funded surface transportation projects and all regionally significant surface transportation projects planned for the Kansas City metro area during federal fiscal years 2016–2020,” would be for highways and streets. That prediction would be wrong.
In reality, 56% of all regional and Missouri-side spending ($1.35 billion) will be for public transportation projects like the bus system and the streetcar. Road and bridge projects only get 32% of the pie, with “complete streets” and pedestrian/bike projects combining for around 11% of spending. These numbers, if anything, overestimate Kansas City’s commitment to road and bridge investments, because the vast majority of spending on roads comes from the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), which is tasked with maintaining the state network, whatever the ideological bent of Kansas City regional planners. MoDOT does not handle non-state highway projects.
If we take MoDOT out of the equation, only about 12 percent of the region's spending ($124 million) is going to roads and bridges. That’s only slightly more than is going to the streetcar starter line, which supporters admit is not really about transportation at all. Seventy-two percent of non-MoDOT transportation spending is going to transit, which, as of 2014, accounted for less than 2 percent of the regions commuters.
How long can Kansas City leaders go on ignoring the transportation modes everyone relies on while lavishing funds on modes few people use if they still expect to have a functioning system?