Independence bus service debated

By Mike Genet
The Examiner

IndeBus, which consists of six bus routes that run within Independence, is not on the budget chopping block like it was last year before the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority allocated some of its federal stimulus funds to help the city. 

But Independence has not restored the hour of service – from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. – it added a few years ago but cut after a year in a budget-balancing move. 

Furthermore, city officials are still trying to find a long-term solution to fund IndeBus. Fares and federal transportation money cover some of the cost, and the city covers the rest from the general fund, which is continuously strained by stagnant retail sales tax revenues and increasingly less revenue from various fees. The pandemic has pressured the general fund even more. 

The city used funds from KCATA to plug the gap last year, and City Manager Zach Walker said most of the $750,000 for IndeBus is covered this year by the federal government’s annual community development block grant. Some additional stimulus support by way of the KCATA could still happen this year, he added. 

Last year, the city estimated about 185,000 riders use IndeBus routes annually. 

“The pandemic hit right as we were putting the final touches on the budget,” Mayor Eileen Weir said of last year’s scramble to continue bus service. A few million dollars had to be shaved, and personnel contracts and other dedicated services are untouchable, so “there’s not many areas of the budget where you can just remove funding.” 

While it would be helpful to restore the evening service hour, Walker said, there were areas of the city where ridership was barren during that time. He said it’s possible the city could restore the additional hour in some places. It could do so strategically and divert end-of-day service from a less-used route to one that would be used more, or some additional stimulus money could become available. 

While the city will receive several million American Rescue Plan stimulus dollars, Walker said there are other high council priorities such as blighted buildings and other public safety issues to address. Also, transportation is an ongoing cost, and the city manager would prefer not to use one-time dollars toward such a cost.  

“Because once that money is gone, it’s gone,” he said. “I’d rather fund a sustainable way of funding it.” 

Weir said it’s important to note that few cities fund bus service within the city like Independence. Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas fund their routes, and KCATA partners with Independence for some service to Kansas City that connects those two cities. 

“The KCATA obviously provides service to us, but we pay to have more robust service in the city,” she said, “and sometimes I think people forget that and think this is something every city has.” 

The mayor’s ideal long-term solution is more regionally based and would involve more of the metro area’s suburbs. American Rescue Plan  money could present an opportunity to get such a system going, she said, as it stretches over a couple years and is more flexible than last year’s CARES Act stimulus, which was for limited, stop-gap uses. 

Weir said Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who’s long touted infrastructure as one of his administration’s top priorities, has even hinted at such when he told city leaders to consider collaboration. 

“In some conversations I’ve been included with the governor and mayors, that’s kind of what he’s encouraging,” Weir said, adding she’s talked with other neighboring mayors to gauge interest in working together on transportation. 

“I’m not asking anybody to find money in their budget to do this,” she said. “But in my book, if there’s one thing everybody can agree on, it’s transportation. Everybody can benefit and nobody would lose.” 

The bottom line, the mayor said, is, “We’ll always try to draw additional funds. There’s lots of money for recovery.”