Budget flap over buses leads to transit reevaluation study

What’s in the future for Midtown transportation? A debate over money for buses tied to this year’s city budget is causing the council to reevaluate transit spending.
A new study group will evaluate how money should be shared between buses, streetcars, and bicycles.

First there were buses, but now streetcars and even bicycles are entering the mass transit picture.

That shakes up politics as well as markets, and now a study group will evaluate how transit sales tax money gets distributed.

The council finance committee approved an ordinance Wednesday for the study. It also overturns a three-year-old requirement that the city incrementally increase money for the buses.

For now, it leaves in a requirement that by May 1, 2014 the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) get 95 percent of about $29 million a year raised by the 1970s era sales tax, but council members said that could well change after the study committee reports this summer.

Bus advocates expect to lose that 95 percent share.

The finance committee took out the incremental requirement now because the city manager’s budget – to be passed today with the ordinance – does not increase money for the buses.

Instead money for the KCATA from the tax stays the same as last year, while $2 million of that tax money instead goes to streetcars and $5 million for roads.

Mark Huffer, general manager of the KCATA, said the city still has time to act before all the city bus reserve money is used by about 2018, forcing a cutback in services.

The KCATA has been using its dwindling reserves to keep the buses running for years, he said. That means no funding for improvements like enhanced bus service on Prospect in Midtown or in the North Oak corridor in the Northland, he said.

He would also like to see more buses running in evenings and on weekends, he said.

The first two-mile Downtown phase of the streetcars probably won’t affect buses much, he said, but if streetcars extend to the University of Missouri at Kansas City, “we may save money on buses there.”

City finance experts have argued against percentage earmarks on taxes, saying they limit city options for quick change. Bus advocates say buses are desperately needed.

The study group will travel on some rough roads.

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