Kansas City, MO – Kansas City voters are being asked to extend a 3/8th cent sales tax for the bus system. The current tax brings in some 23 million dollars a year and will expire in March of next year. Supporters say the 15
year extension is crucial to keeping the bus system running, but some critics say transit officials need to come up with a combined light rail and bus plan to take to voters. KCUR's Maria Carter reports.
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High gas prices are driving more people to give the bus a try. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority says ridership is up 14 percent since 2004. At the bus stop on the corner of Cleaver and Troost, Sherril has a bit of advice for potential riders.
Sherril: It's a headache. Early in the morning. Sometimes if you gotta catch a bus at a certain time, you better get there early because even if you do it's already gone because it done took off.
Sherril doesn't have a car and says she rides the bus for everything work, groceries, the doctor's office. The ATA says that's pretty common story. A study found about half of riders don't own a car and most use the bus to get to work. ATA director Mark Huffer says serving this population is important and without the 3/8th cent sales there'd be some drastic changes.
Mark Huffer: What we would end up with is public transit system that did not operate on weekends or at least on Sundays, very little or know late night service Monday through Saturday, service that instead of operating every 15 minutes would operate every hour.
Voters approved the tax in 2003 to help get the bus system back on firm financial footing after cuts in federal and state funding and a slump in sales tax revenue. It now makes up about 30 percent of the agency's budget. The tax came into question again in 2006, when voters approved a light rail plan that would have used the tax for funding. The Kansas City council repealed the measure saying the it was impractical and too costly. But that plans author Clay Chastain says that's where this money should be headed.
Clay Chastain: They still don't have a light rail plan. The still can't tell us what street light rail is going down. They still can't tell us what tax they're going to use for light rail in November.
The Kansas City council says a light rail proposal will be ready for a November vote. Kevin Klinkenberg is the secretary for the local chapter of American Institute of Architects. He says his group supports the bus system, but that bus and light rail are inseparable.
Kevin Klinkenberg: Well, we think they should be planned together bus also taken to the voters together. And really taken and sold as one complete system that integrates.
But ATA director Mark Huffer says delaying a vote until November would put the ATA at disadvantage for diesel and other contracts. Councilman Ed Ford says keeping the bus system healthy is important for any future light rail plans.
Ed Ford: Eighty percent of folks in most cities that take rail to work do not start their trip on rail. They start or end it on a bus or a park and ride.
Back on the bus, another rider, Hope says light rail seems like it'll be a long time coming. She takes a 40 minute bus ride to work on 18th and Vine.
Hope: I try to enjoy the time. I bring music. And I hear a lot of stories on the buses
She says she wants to see more upgrades on the buses but wishes taxes didn't have to fall on working people like her.
Hope: They need to put a gas tax on or do something else on cigarettes or something else that's not helping build society. They need to stop putting the burden on the people. They are already burdened enough.
Despite the fact that the ATA says service would languish without it, Hope says she is still undecided about how, or whether, she'll vote on the bus tax.