When Things Are Free, You Get What You Pay For

Kansas City’s effort to get its hands on the KCATA cookie jar was sadly predictable.

By Jack Cashill

Reading about the chaos at KCATA—Kansas City Area Transportation Authority—I am reminded of my own brief career as a public servant. Having fallen through a wormhole some years back, I woke to discover myself the director of management at the Housing Authority of Kansas City. 

Despite the fall, I retained my belief, unpopular in governmental circles, that the public servant’s first obligation is to the people who pay the bills. In public housing, that wasn’t the tenants. That was the taxpayer. 

True story: I once attended a tenants’ meeting at the notorious high-rise housing project, the late and unlamented Wayne Miner. The tenants were threatening a rent strike. I told them to go ahead. They had no leverage, and I explained why.

The average tenant did not pay rent. At all. The rent was calculated on a sliding scale based on income and various deductions. When the utility allowance was factored in, the authority actually paid at least half the renters to live at Wayne Miner. The housing authority, I continued, would actually come out ahead had the tenants persisted with a strike.

These meetings went better than you might imagine. Many of the tenants, including the leaders, welcomed the idea of being spoken to as thinking adults. In fact, my taxpayer-oriented management style played better with the tenants than it did with the authority’s board, especially its soon-to-be incarcerated chair. As the reader might suspect, I was not long for that world.

The problem at the KCATA is that no one seems to be paying for anything. In December 2019—mind you, this is before words like “COVID” and “pandemic” had entered the lexicon—the City Council voted unanimously to make riding free on all transit. The reason for free fares, said Mayor Quinton Lucas at the time, was to “build up a culture of bus riding.” 

The real reason for the free fares went unspoken. The light rail system was headed to the Country Club Plaza and beyond. Mayor Q knew it would look downright racist and undeniably classist if the white woke could ride their precious light rail for free while real, live, working people subsidized their whimsy by paying bus fare. 

In a metro where 92 percent of the people take cars to work, getting people on any kind of public transit wasn’t going to be easy. Getting people enthused about public transit after COVID struck was harder still. Now every bus ride held the promise of being a super spreader event. 

Perversely, the absence of riders proved to be something of a windfall for the KCATA. The federal government dispatched millions of free COVID dollars its way, so much so that its brass did not know what to do with the excess. One thing they could not do with any success was hire new bus drivers. 

As it happens, the feds had also sent billions of free dollars to people who might otherwise have become bus drivers. Given a choice between planting one’s butt behind the wheel of a bus all day or planting it in a La-Z-Boy watching Netflix, many opted for the La-Z-Boy. It was easier to change channels than change routes. Plus, fighting your kids for the remote was generally safer than fighting some psycho for your life.

All that free COVID money sitting idle at the KCATA proved too much of a temptation for City Hall. The same City Council that voted to make bus riding free, voted 11-1 to install new energy-efficient street lights. The fact that the city had set aside no money to do this proved only a temporary inconvenience. When city leaders saw the necessary $20 million or so in the KCATA piggy bank, they went looking for the nearest hammer.

Shocked by their brazenness, Robbie Makinen, KCATA”S longtime CEO and president, called in a 10-17, piggy bank heist in progress, to the Federal Transit Administration, but the staff was apparently on a donut run. He tried the State of Missouri, but he couldn’t get a hearing. Like a pipsqueak little brother, he had to just sit and watch as his big brother at City Hall took what he wanted. Having sacrificed his only revenue stream, bus fares, and now almost fully dependent on the city’s largesse for KCATA’s very existence, Makinen had no more leverage with the city than the residents of Wayne Miner had with the housing authority.

Eventually, Makinen signed a “cooperative agreement” with Kansas City that reads like the letter the Ramseys found when Jon Benet went missing. Pay Kansas City $22.5 million for the street-lighting project over the next two years. Throw in $6 million to help extend the streetcar to the riverfront and add another $4 million for a Grand Boulevard bike and pedestrian bridge, and we’ll let your child live—that child being the KCATA. 

The smart money has Makinen pounding the pavement by the time this article appears in print. The real reason for his departure will be that he embarrassed City Hall, but the given reason will be the poor performance of the KCATA.

What’s left of the local newspaper has been working this angle for some time. In a recent article, The Star interviewed scores of disgruntled passengers who complained of too few buses and too much unpredictability. Said the newspaper in a separate editorial, “Kansas Citians deserve public bus transit that is safe, reliable, convenient, comfortable—and free.”

Sorry, comrades, but no one “deserves” free anything. Bus riders who don’t pay “deserve” good service no more than KCATA “deserves” its COVID money, no more than City Hall “deserves” KCATA’s money. In stripping public service of its funding logic, we have become a metro of grifters.

On a final note, harkening back to those public-service days of my past, the cable companies needed my permission to install cable in the public housing projects. I asked their rep how they could collect cable fees from people who don’t pay rent. “Simple,” he said. “We cut off their cable until they do pay.”

People liked their cable enough to pay for it. 

About the author

Jack Cashill is Ingram's Senior Editor and has been affiliated with the magazine for more than 30 years. He can be reached at jackcashill@yahoo.com. The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.

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