Federal funds being used to stabilize Independence bus service

Mike Genet
The Examiner USA TODAY NETWORK

In a budget crunch in the spring of 2020, the city of Independence was able to lean on the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority to continue bus service in the city without interruption. 

The metrowide agency applied federal stimulus funds to cover IndeBus, the city's six routes that fan out through the city from the transit center at Noland and Truman roads. That service had been on the chopping block.  

The city will be able to use stimulus funds through the ATA to help cover transit costs for a few more years, as well. For now, though, the evening hour of service cut a few years ago – from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. – remains unrestored. 

The Independence City Council approved $135,000 last week from the general fund to cover the balance of transit costs with the ATA through June 2022. According to city documents, various federal stimulus funds totaling $2.5 million will help the city through 2024. 

Essentially, it keeps transit from being an immediate budget headache for Independence and buys the city time to work on long-term funding, which Mayor Eileen Weir has advocated coming from a regional transportation plan. 

“The hope is we can stretch their funds as long as possible while we figure out a more sustainable and efficient system,” City Manager Zach Walker said. 

In pre-pandemic years, fares and federal transportation money would cover some of the cost of IndeBus, and the city would cover the rest through the general fund – a share that has risen in recent years – in addition to funding paratransit services within the city and a small portion for intercity service with RideKC. 

The pandemic forced a budget crunch going into fiscal year 2020-21, though, and the ATA's stimulus allocation of $1.6 million to Independence ultimately saved IndeBus service and covered other transit costs. 

The city says about $80,000 remains from that allocation and will help cover costs through 2022. For fiscal 2021-22, Independence used federal community development block grant funds to cover most ($607,500) of its IndeBus portion. 

“They funded us for two years; they gave us a certain amount,” Weir said about last year's $1.6 million. “The portion we approved is the shortfall we needed to make up.” 

Walker said earlier this year the evening hour of bus service had barren ridership in some areas of the city, and if restored it would likely be in a strategic manner instead of across the board. 

In March, ATA approved $803,000 to Independence from a second round of stimulus funds. In May, the agency approved its spending plan for American Rescue Plan Act money, with $1.7 slated for Independence. Both allocations have expenditure deadlines of 2024. 

“That's why they have the money, to help others,” Weir said of the ATA's stimulus funds. 

According to ATA records, in addition to Independence's $2.4 million in allocations before ARPA, Johnson County, Kansas has received $10.5 million and the KCK/Wyandotte County Unified Government $5.9 million, among stimulus fund allocations. 

Ideally, Weir would like to see regional transportation plan drawing on more suburbs. Such a plan would seem to be more sustainable for transit agencies such as Independence. 

“That was a big topic of conversation here in Salt Lake City, a more sustainable long-term solution,” Weir said as she departed a national conference of municipal leaders. “We can't plan long term when we don't have a sustainable solution.”