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Kansas City Tries A Radical Way To Get More People On Buses

NOEL KING, HOST:

Cities would really like more people to ride the bus. It cuts down on traffic. It brings in revenue for the city. But it has not been easy. So some cities are offering discounts on fares. And in Kansas City, Mo., more than 90% of the people there drive a car every day, so officials are trying something radical. Lisa Rodriguez of member station KCUR has the story.

LISA RODRIGUEZ, BYLINE: I'm riding the bus along Troost Avenue in Kansas City, Mo. I paid $1.50 to board. And when I make my way back, I'll pay another buck-fifty. But by this time next year, the bus could be free. That could save an everyday rider up to $1,000 a year.

GARY BANKS: Man, pay bills. (Unintelligible). I guess the kids could get some more stuff, too, huh? Yeah, that’d be nice. I'd like that.

RODRIGUEZ: That's Gary Banks (ph). He says not paying fares would be a game-changer.

BANKS: That'd save a lot of money.

RODRIGUEZ: Eliminating fares was Robbie Makinen's idea. Kansas City's transportation head says going zero-fare removes some barriers.

ROBBIE MAKINEN: Transit is that one thing. It's that one thing that transcends everything - health care, school, job access. In the top three things of barriers that are in place, transportation is one of those things in the top three.

RODRIGUEZ: Plus, he says, that fare money will go back into the local economy. Some smaller places, like Park City, Utah, have successfully gone fare-free and seen a jump in ridership. In Olympia, Wash., buses will be free starting January 1. But so far, Kansas City appears to be the biggest in the U.S. to make the leap. It's feasible here in part because of low ridership numbers. Also, state and local funding helps.

Fare-payers kick in about $8 million a year to the transit system. That's only about 10% of its revenue. But in places where transit agencies rely more heavily on fares for funding, the move is considerably more difficult. Consider Denver, where Pauletta Tonilas says fares make up a quarter of the revenue for the Denver Regional Transportation District.

PAULETTA TONILAS: We would have to figure out a revenue stream to compensate for that $145 million a year that we would lose by not charging fares.

RODRIGUEZ: In New York, nearly 40% of the money needed to run the MTA comes from fares. That's a huge amount - more than $7 billion a year.

(SOUNDBITE OF COINS DROPPING)

RODRIGUEZ: Back in Kansas City, some regular bus riders, like Martha Gay (ph), worry about other consequences of free bus rides, like overcrowding on buses.

MARTHA GAY: So those working people that catch the bus - it's not going to be any place for anyone to sit down because everybody's going to be on the bus because it's free. They can hop on anywhere at any time.

RODRIGUEZ: But transit officials don't expect overcrowding. They insist the current system can handle 30% more riders without adding a single bus. And Kansas City already has some experience with free public transit. It has a free streetcar and provides free bus rides to veterans and students. While offering free bus fare may be more complicated elsewhere, Rosalie Singerman Ray, who's researched free-fare models at Columbia University, says there are more transit systems like Kansas City's than there are like New York or Denver.

ROSALIE SINGERMAN RAY: There are a lot of urban systems that don't get very much fare revenue that have a lot of excess capacity on their bus and are really just waiting for a politician to have the courage to say I think we can make this work.

RODRIGUEZ: Still, in the Kansas City area, a commute that takes 20 minutes by car can take more than an hour and a half on the bus. Free fares may not be the solution until the entire system becomes more efficient.

For NPR News, I'm Lisa Rodriguez in Kansas City, Mo.

(SOUNDBITE OF LULLATONE'S "A HOMETOWN HERO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.