By Jeff Fox

A proposed change in transportation funding for the metro area could mean more for public transit.

The Mid-America Regional Council, whose board is comprised of elected city and county officials on both sides of the state line, sets priorities for which projects in the region get federal funding. That’s roughly $27 million a year.

Most of that money goes for roads and bridges, and officials said there’s been a sense that mass-transit projects – even some worthy ones – have tended to get overlooked. The policy the MARC board discussed Tuesday and could adopt next month would shoot for putting at least 15 percent of that money into mass transit.

Kansas City is installing streetcars, and Jackson County has plans – on hold since early this year – for a commuter rail system. Advocates have consistently said people – especially younger people – increasingly expect a vibrant city to have an extensive and easy-to-use public transit system.

“We’re recognizing a different culture than we had 15 years ago, and we need to move with that,” said Raytown Mayor David Bower, co-chair of a key MARC committee on transportation.

Bower said typically 8 to 10 percent of the federal money flowing through MARC has gone to public transit, but he acknowledged that changing old patterns isn’t easy.

“I think it’s (the policy change) a logical approach, but it is change,” Bower said. “It’s a different way of looking at things.”

There are other challenges, too.

“It’s also tough because you’re dealing with limited resources – resources that continue to decline,” said Marge Vogt, an Olathe council member and chair of the MARC board.

Officials stressed that the 15 percent would not be an automatic set-aside – “If it’s a bad project, you don’t do it,” Bower said – but suggested that with that approach, local jurisdictions might be encouraged to come up and submit with more creative and efficient ideas.

There is a back-to-the-future aspect to some of this, officials acknowledge. The metro area once had streetcars, but those were gone by the late 1950s.

“Sixty years ago,” said Mission Mayor Laura McConwell, “we had what we needed.”