Area transit advocate works toward unity and expansion

 By Joe Lambe

From Independence to Midtown to Johnson County, public transit is in play.

MAX buses operate on Main Street and Troost and may expand to Prospect; streetcars are on track for downtown; and plans to better coordinate it all are fast tracked.

Robbie Makinen, recently named Transit Advocate of the Year by the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance, spoke Monday of change.

He talked with a cane in hand, his sunglasses on the table. Makinen, 49, went legally blind in May. That puts him in the same position as many disabled people affiliated with the Whole Person, 3710 Main St., and with the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City, 3011 Baltimore Ave.

“If it weren’t for public transit, I wouldn’t be able to keep my job,” he said.

But he has kept his county job as the Jackson County director of intergovernmental services and wears several other hats, including co-chair of the new Regional Transit Coordinating Council, which has scored some quick wins after just one meeting, he said.

He co-chairs it with Laura McConwell, mayor of Mission. He is also the board chairman of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

The new coordinating council includes city and county leaders from throughout the area. Basically, many transit agencies operate buses and they are working on coordinating efforts with help from the ATA and the Mid-America Regional Council.

After the first coordinating council meeting, a regional map of all transit sectors is underway, Makinen said, and they are examining bus passes to try and mesh fares and passes that could be used area wide.

They will also examine economies of scale, he said, ways to share buying things like fuel or even buses powered by compressed natural gas so that all can get discounts.

“This can be put together to help create a consensus of thought without a loss of individual identity,” he said. The “JO” buses will still be those of Johnson County and so forth.

The KCATA was set up as a transportation authority like that of New York and New Jersey and should function that way, he said, helping with all area transit.

It’s not buses against streetcars or against anyone else – they are all complementary, he said. “But there are certain things the ATA does in its sleep (like working with the federal government) that other folks might not want to do or need a little help with.”

The ATA also can help with development, he said, as it helped get the link from Crown Center to Union Station and the bus stop at 39th and Troost.

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders and others have assisted him in coping with sudden blindness, Makinen said. Sanders told him, “You might have lost your eyesight, but you don’t have to lose the vision.”

One thing he sees, Makinen said: “The cities and counties need to use the ATA as the tool it was meant to be.”

Also, he said, “Young professionals want to live in a city with great transit options, that’s just a fact.”