With stimulus money, the bus company gets new buses to go fewer places 

A worn-out clutch added hours to Corey Pike's workday.

Pike lives in midtown and works at Zona Rosa. The commute took 15 minutes until Pike turned over his 1997 Honda to a mechanic. Now that he's riding a bus, Pike budgets two hours for travel.

The mechanic quoted a steep price. "I might end up being on the bus for a while," Pike says.

He's waiting for a transfer at 10th Street and Main. A Quiznos ball cap protects his fair skin from the sun. Pike, 25, took a job at the sub shop last fall. Before that, he sold water-filtration systems — a tough gig during a recession. "Sales kind of plummeted," Pike says.

Congress passed a $789 billion stimulus bill in the hopes of jump-starting an economy that demoted Pike from salesman to sandwich artist, while Wall Street and Detroit have received direct — and highly controversial — cash transfusions.

The downturn has ushered in a new spirit of government activism. But Pike and other bus riders will feel a sense of neglect. Transit agencies nationwide are cutting back.

Kansas City's regional bus company is pondering a 10 percent reduction in service. At the same time, though, the agency is in line to receive more than $16 million in stimulus money.

It's a dumb-looking equation. More government aid = more time standing next to a pole, mourning a failed car part.

How does this happen?

In January, the Kansas City Area Transit Authority announced a 25-cent fare hike. The agency said the money was needed to offset city budget cuts.

An extra quarter at the fare box will help. But it's not enough to compensate for a city that's flat-broke. The city adopted a budget last month that provides the bus company $7.2 million less than it received in 2008.

The ATA released a list of possible service cuts. People who rely on buses will notice the difference. More than a third of the routes will operate with fewer buses or disappear altogether on the weekends.

Pike uses the No. 57 bus to travel from Armour Boulevard to downtown, where he catches another bus to get to Zona Rosa. Pike is fortunate. In the proposed changes, the 57 will still stop near his home. But if Pike lived south of the Plaza, he would see fewer buses, making a long commute even longer.

The ATA's Web site provides good information about the proposed service reductions and the reasons for them. But I had to look elsewhere to learn about cash coming from Washington.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act made available $116 million for public transportation in Kansas and Missouri. The Mid-America Regional Council got this area’s share: $20 million, to be distributed among the ATA and transit authorities in Wyandotte and Johnson counties.

The money came with conditions. Bus companies couldn't use the stimulus to simply plug budget holes. Instead, transit agencies were instructed to pay for capital projects.

So, approximately half of the $20 million will buy new buses. The rest will be spent on facility improvements, maintenance and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

New buses will be good for the ATA in the end. I speak from experience, having been on a bus that expired while chugging up a hilly portion of U.S. Highway 40.

Still, it's ironic that the ATA's budget gap is virtually the same size as the money it's getting to upgrade its fleet. The agency will be going fewer places but arriving in style. It seems silly, and it may explain why the ATA seems reluctant to promote its receipt of stimulus money.

Transit advocates wish the recovery package had come with fewer strings attached. The group Transportation for America put together a list of 85 U.S. transit agencies contemplating job cuts, fare hikes and route reductions. St. Louis is in horrible shape. Its transit company slashed service to save $35 million.

The CEO of St. Louis Metro made an emergency funding request to state lawmakers. Echoing that plea, Mark Huffer, the general manager of the ATA, asked Jefferson City for a one-time appropriation of $14 million. In a letter to House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, Huffer said it was ironic and tragic that the state's two major metropolitan areas were facing transit crises at a time when ridership was soaring and working families needed all the help they could get.

Transit is a tough sell, in part because so many people never get out of their cars. Of course, government provides a lot of services that segments of the population do not consume. But anti-tax grumps seem to hold buses and trains in special contempt. It's an attitude that is hard to understand. Haven't we all seen a blind person board a bus? Yeah, you're right, Cletus. Mobility for the visually impaired — damn that gubment!

The same shitheads who complain about transit use roads, highways and bridges without a thought to the collectivism that paid for them. As if Interstate 435 shot up from the ground like a dandelion.

In early March, the Mid-America Regional Council produced a list of 39 transportation projects in this area to receive stimulus money. To read the list is to be staggered by the costs to keep cars and trucks rolling. A 1.3-mile stretch of 127th Street in Olathe is getting $3.5 million. A 2.2-mile portion of College Boulevard in Overland Park is receiving $2.8 million.

Smart Moves — a plan for expanding regional transit service, mostly with buses — is also on the list of 39. It's getting $261,250. This buys, what, about 60 yards of six-lane asphalt?

Rehabilitating 103rd Street in Leawood ($1.3 million in stimulus) won't help Corey Pike get to Quiznos. He's taking things in stride, however. Maybe he can find the money to pay the mechanic. Maybe his brother can fix the clutch. Maybe he'll just keep riding the bus.

I ask Pike if he has thought about a getting a job closer to where he lives. Yes, he says. But he dreads having to look for another job when it was so hard to find his current position. He says he filled out 20 applications a week before getting his Quiznos hat.

In the meantime, a tedious commute will continue to bookend Pike's workday. Any further cuts in bus service would be demoralizing. "I would think giving myself an hour and a half to get to work would be sufficient," he says, his sarcasm entirely justified.

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