Free Kansas City public transit proposal advances, despite projected budget shortfall

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Free public transit throughout all of Kansas City moved a step closer to becoming reality after a city council committee endorsed the idea on Wednesday.

At least one council member is warning that city taxpayers may not be able to afford zero-fare bus service.

"One of the reasons the city has no damn money is because we keep saying, 'Oh this is a good idea, let's do this,'" said Katheryn Shields, chair of the finance committee.

Eliminating all bus fares in Kansas City is expected to cost $8 million a year. That's what the Area Transportation Authority collects from fare boxes and a federal subsidy.

But proponents call free transit a difference maker for our economy by getting workers to jobs. They say it's also a life saver for citizens, getting people to doctors and grocery stores for trips they may otherwise skip.

The free fare proposal comes at time when the bus service is redesigning its system in an effort to make it work better for citizens by including new technology, including the ability for buses to change red lights to green to move people faster.

"A dollar-fifty goes a lot further outside of our fare box," said Robbie Makinen, president of KCATA. "If you are a single parent of two and you are on the Prospect corridor or anywhere else and you can save $1,500 to $2,000 a year. What are you going to do with that money? It's going to go right back into the community. It’s going to generate sales taxes for the city and state. It’s not leaving."

But Shields says Kansas City is looking at a $65 million shortfall during the next five years. And the council may have to cut about $13 million a year from the budget. Shields says adding another $8 million expense may not be something the city can afford right now, without harming other basic services like street resurfacing.

But a majority on the committee say free transit should be a city priority. Members do agree with Shields that the business community should step up and pay for bus passes for their employees, as many schools and public sector employers already do.

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