Shawnoahia Farr sits on a bench at a bus stop, her face a snarl. She has an appointment at KU Medical Center, and she's behind schedule.
Farr lives less than five miles from the hospital. If she owned a car, the trip would take minutes. Farr, however, relies on public transportation, which means delays, transfers and the company of noisy street philosophers.
Forty-five minutes after walking out her front door, Farr is stuck at the transit center at 39th Street and Troost, waiting for a westbound bus that runs three times an hour at midday. The bus she picked up near her home was late, she says, causing her to miss the connection to KU Med she wanted.
A frequent rider, Farr says the bus company, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, has room to improve. "They're some sloppy-ass operators," she says.
Farr's blunt opinion is pretty common. The ATA does not rank among the city's most admired institutions. Praise for the agency tops out with the grudging acknowledgement that it's probably doing the best it can. Ron McLinden, a member of the grassroots Transit Action Network, says the ATA has been "pretty frugal" with its resources, the bureaucratic equivalent of being said to have a nice personality.
The ATA's homeliness makes it easy to assume that it's run by a bunch of people who couldn't cut it at Greyhound. (Diminutive and a lackluster public speaker, ATA General Manager Mark Huffer doesn't leave a room with the impression that he's a dynamic executive.) But the agency faces a unique set of problems.
The recession, for one, has forced the ATA to amp up its frugality. The agency relies on sales taxes, and when people have less money to buy things, the ATA's budget whimpers along with them.
Buses are also losing money to developers with tax-increment-financing agreements with Kansas City, Missouri. TIF deals allow developers to skim sales taxes in certain areas of the city. TIF areas keep expanding, which means less money for public transit.
The ATA might be able to withstand the recession and subsidy-hungry developers without a noticeable crimp in service. Hard times and an economic-development scheme are not the things putting a dent in the agency's budget, however.
The buses are also getting dinged by the city itself.
Kansas City, Missouri, collects a 0.5-percent sales tax for public transportation. The tax began in 1971, six years after the ATA was established as the single transportation agency for the metropolitan area.
A sales tax collected in the name of public transportation, you might think, would be delivered to a public transportation agency with a minimum of fuss. In fact, the city keeps a portion of the money — an increasingly large portion of the money.
The public transportation tax is expected to raise $29.6 million in the current fiscal year. The city plans to withhold $5.4 million, which is something more than a mere handling fee. William Wilson, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287, which represents 672 ATA workers, calls the city's rake a "slush fund."
By any name, it keeps growing. The city's 18.3-percent cut follows a pattern of steady increases. In the 2003-04 fiscal year, the city kept only 4.6 percent of the sales tax.
So what's the city doing with the money? Plugging other holes in its budget.
The main recipient of the public transportation tax has been the city's Public Works Department. Public Works is staying partly true to the spirit of the tax by using the money for transportation-related functions, such as street and traffic operations.
But the number of Public Works endeavors to tap into the tax is growing.
In each of the last two budget cycles, the city has taken $2.6 million from the public-transportation tax to balance the books of the traffic-signals unit. "That's the one we landed on," Mark Thoma-Perry, a city budget officer, says.
Of course, the tax is not just for transportation but also for public transportation. So here's the city's logic on that point: Buses rely on traffic lights, so let's use mass-transportation revenue to keep the signals working!
The ATA, meanwhile, is hurting. In the summer of 2009, citing a $9 million budget shortfall, the agency instituted service cuts and fare hikes.
Riders noticed the difference. Buses on popular routes, including the 39th Street line that Farr uses to get to KU Med, arrive less frequently than they did in the past. Even the MAX, the "rapid" Main Street bus that's designed to appeal to more than just the carless, took a hit.
Other routes have disappeared entirely, creating havoc in the lives of people who rely on public transit. Hazeline Clay, a legally blind resident, moved out of her rented home on Kansas City's South Side after the Longview connector was discontinued. Her new place is within reach of the Blue Ridge line. "Cutting the bus routes really hurt a lot of people," she tells me.
Frustrated by the service cuts, transit advocates are beginning to push back at city officials for gobbling up the 0.5-percent sales tax.
Members of the Transit Action Network are meeting with members of the City Council over the next few weeks. One of the points they want to make is that Kansas City gets the public transit it pays for.
"Of course they don't have enough service," Janet Rogers, a member of the Transit Action Network, says of the ATA. "They don't have the money to provide it."
The ATA, it should be noted, receives an additional sales tax that did not exist seven years ago. In 2003, Kansas City voters approved a new 0.375-percent sales tax specifically for the ATA. Officials at the agency said the tax was necessary to maintain a tolerable level of service.
Rogers believes that the dedicated ATA tax has made it easier for city officials to justify taking larger shares of the less explicitly worded 0.5-percent sales tax. And a recession that has forced transit companies across the country to lay off workers and strand riders has also muted local outrage about service cuts and a 25-cent fare hike.
But the downturn is only partly to blame for ATA's deteriorating financial position. The city expects the 0.5-percent sales tax to bring in roughly the same amount of money that it did five years ago. Yet the ATA can expect to receive a check that's $5 million lighter than the one it cashed in 2005.
An accountant by training, Rogers has put together a spreadsheet indicating that the city has withheld $22 million from the ATA during the past eight years. "Imagine what we could have done for transit with another $22 million," she says.
ATA officials say they'll eat through their reserve funds in a couple of years. Huffer has been talking about more service cuts and calling for more concessions from the union, whose contract expires at the end of the year. "I expect tough negotiations," Wilson says.
The union driver who took Shawnoahia Farr to see her doctor was performing a vital service. By the time her bus pulled up to Troost, 12 other passengers were waiting for a ride.