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‘Mass transportation’ tax proposed for Kansas City ballot. But who gets the money?

Kansas City Star logoKansas City Star 5/24/2023 Mike Hendricks, The Kansas City Star
KCATA Max bus stops at 31st Street and Prospect Avenue in Kansas City. © Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/TNS KCATA Max bus stops at 31st Street and Prospect Avenue in Kansas City.

Kansas City’s bus system was saved from financial ruin 20 years ago when voters approved a 3/8th-cent sales tax to prevent severe cuts in service.

“It’s a stopgap,” then City Councilwoman Deb Hermann said at that time about what was to be a temporary tax on top of the permanent ½-cent transit sales tax that supported the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

Supporters said the tax’s five-year duration would be long enough to build up the KCATA’s reserves until a regional transit tax could take effect.

That regional tax never materialized. So the 3/8th-cent tax was extended another 15 years, and now the time has come for Kansas City voters to decide whether to extend it once again. Most likely that will be in November because a city council committee on Wednesday held the matter for two weeks, missing the Friday deadline to put it on the August ballot.

But there’s now a wrinkle.

The ballot language that Mayor Quinton Lucas has proposed makes no mention of buses or the KCATA.

It asks only that voters approve a 10-year extension of the tax “for the purposes of developing, operating, maintaining, equipping, and improving a public mass transportation system.”

But what kind of mass transportation system would that be? And who would run it?

Some supporters of the KCATA are wary, worrying privately that city officials will siphon transit tax money for other projects if the recipient of the money is not specified and the purpose of the funding not more specific.

There’s too much wiggle room, they say, allowing for a repeat of what happened last year when city officials pressured the authority to spend more than $20 million in transit funds on installing new street lights. They also worry that the money might be repurposed to another form of public transit, leaving the mainstay RideKC bus service struggling as it had been before the tax was first passed in 2003.

“Key question is whether this is being done to divert funding to the streetcar,” one official with close ties to the KCATA suggested while not being willing to risk blowback from City Hall by speaking on the record.

Morgan Said, Lucas’ chief of staff, said her boss has no intention of defunding the KCATA. Rather, the proposed ballot language was written to conform with the style of other ballot issues passed during the Lucas administration, stating the purpose of the funding, without mentioning the specific recipient.

“Nothing fundamentally will change,” she said in an interview on Monday. “It’s a clean extension of 10 years.”

On Tuesday, she added context in a text message:

“We don’t want ballot language to award funds to any organization or group automatically, without accountability, or without any public process. We will do that, as we have with revenues from all other ballot measures passed during the Lucas administration, via ordinance. We plan to continue our relationship with KCATA in that fashion.”

She and Lucas met with KCATA CEO and President Frank White III Monday to discuss the tax extension proposal.

“They look forward to building an outstanding set of plans for transit in our region,” Said said.

Asked for his observations about Lucas’ proposal, White had no comment.

Clay Chastain, Lucas’ long-shot challenger in the June 20 mayoral election, would like to see the 3/8th-cent tax repurposed to fund his proposed monorail from downtown to Kansas City International Airport. But that’s unlikely to happen.

The city estimates that the 3/8th-cent KCATA sales tax, as it’s identified in the budget, will bring in $37 million this year. It’s expected that the ½-cent “public mass transit” sales tax will bring in $39 million.

Together those tax dollars account for more than two thirds of the KCATA’s operating budget, and nearly a fourth of the funding for new buses and other capital outlays. The federal government subsidizes most of the rest.

For that reason, passing the sales tax renewal is important, David Johnson, chief of the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance, said in a written statement:

“This tax supports almost half of the transit service in Kansas City and, despite pandemic related staffing shortages that reduced the quality of service, the KCATA has been a good steward of that funding and has leveraged it to attract additional federal investment in our transit system. Recent contractual changes between the City and KCATA have improved accountability for the funding they receive.”

Johnson added that the rest of the region needs to match the money Kansas City taxpayers contribute through a dedicated funding source. Currently, Johnson County, Independence and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, make spending decisions year to year.

The city council’s transportation, infrastructure and operations committee will consider Lucas’ ballot language and the timing of the election when his proposed ordinance comes up for consideration again on June 14.

©2023 The Kansas City Star. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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