Bus system funding gets a boost, but …

By Joe Lambe

First there were buses, and then came the downtown streetcars and $2 million in sales tax money this year shifted from buses to streetcars.

It will stay that way under a city council resolution approved Thursday, but funding will get better and more certain for buses.

The resolution specifies that officials won’t do what they did this year – take $5 million from the buses for street resurfacing.

There were complaints this year that the city was violating promises to voters and a 2010 council requirement that 95 percent of a half-cent transit sales tax go to buses by next fiscal year.

So a special council committee studied the matter for months and came up with a compromise.

The resolution specifies that the downtown streetcars will get  $2.039 million from the money but no more.

And that amount plus about $26 million that goes to the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority for buses must make up 95 percent of the half-cent sales tax for transportation.

When the dust clears, the resolution means the ATA will get about $2 million more a year, although that does not solve its fiscal problems.

The sales tax revenue grows by maybe 1 percent a year and bus expenses increase by 2.5 percent and a $27 million sales tax reserve fund that keeps the buses going has been dwindling by up to $3 million a year.

The certainty of funding and its small increase pushes back a projection that the reserves would be gone and services would have to be cut back by 2018, said Mark Huffer, ATA general manager.

Councilman Ed Ford said, “the biggest problem in a nutshell is that sales taxes are flat; we are just losing a ton of sales tax due to Internet sales.”

Huffer said a law change to collect such taxes would help. Another option is passing a one-eighth sales tax that is still available for transit.

Within a decade, he said, the ATA will save much money by fully switching to buses powered by natural gas.

More state and federal funding would also help, he said, and so would a new labor agreement holding down costs.

Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union appeared to be listening. They packed a committee hearing Thursday and handed out flyers saying they would accept an 18-month wage freeze.

Ron McLinden of Transit Action Network was there and said public transportation is in a historic state of flux.

What will happen as the streetcars go into operation and expand?

City Manager Troy Schulte suggested that the ATA could wind up managing the streetcars and buses.

He also said the resolution gives the ATA more certainty but at the cost of less flexibility to the city.

Councilwoman Jan Marcason, finance committee chair, asked where the city will get $5 million next year to plug the gap for promised street resurfacing.

“This year’s budget is not going to be very fun to do,” she said.

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