Transit Action Network (TAN)

Advocates for Improved and Expanded Transit in the Kansas City Region.

How Our Region Should Respond to the Brookings Report

Posted by Transit Action Network on July 22, 2011

The recent Brookings Institute report on transit access to jobs, “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America,” was released more than two months ago.  It ranked our region 90th out of the top 100 urban regions in our ability to get people to jobs by transit.  That got the attention of many of the region’s leaders — at least for a couple of weeks.

Some might quibble with the study methodology (and Brookings would probably admit to some flaws), but we can all agree that the current transit network doesn’t do a very good job of getting people to jobs here in the Kansas City region.

The question is: What do we do about it?

It’s obvious that the region needs to invest more in transit.  We already knew that.  Missouri invested only $119,000 in the KCATA last year, compared with the $10’s of millions that many other states with large urban areas invest in their transit systems. Even Kansas invests more in its urban transit systems than does Missouri.

But we don’t just have just a transit problem, we have a job sprawl problem.  New employment keeps getting scattered out on the edges of our region in places that are beyond the current transit network and would be costly to serve by transit.

Our region’s economic development people apparently give little or no consideration to transit availability when they try to attract new employers, and competing local jurisdictions seem to fall all over themselves to hand out tax breaks — again, without considering transit availability.

We’ve known for a long time that two-thirds of transit riders are going to work, or going in search of work.  The Brookings report helps to re-frame the transit issue as one of equitable access to jobs and other opportunities.  People who need and want jobs often can’t get to them — can’t even get to a job interview — because they don’t have a reliable car and transit service is lacking.  The situation is just going to get worse in the future as gas prices continue their upward trend and more people need to turn to transit.

Mid-America Regional Council and the transit agencies are actively engaged in many transit studies and projects: the Smart Moves Transit Plan, Downtown and Commuter Corridor  Studies, and investments to make additional corridors “BRT-ready”. These are all good, but Transit Action Network’s impression — and we hope we’re wrong — is that the region doesn’t intend to do much more than it is already doing.  Unfortunately, that isn’t enough to rectify the problems identified in the Brookings Report.

Moreover, MARC and the transit agencies can’t do everything that’s needed.  City and county public officials must be aware of the problem, must take it seriously, and must implement many of the necessary steps.

Transit Action Network makes the following recommendations to the region’s leadership:

1 – Identify the 500 largest job locations (including major “opportunity locations” such as health care, shopping, higher education) in the region, measure how well our transit network serves those locations, promote better transit service to these locations where needed, and track how we improve the situation over time.

2 – Track local, state and federal money used to operate our public transit systems over time, adjusted for inflation.

3 – Publish an annual “Transit Access to Opportunities Report Card” based on the information gathered, and share it with elected officials and the public.

In addition to collecting and reporting data:

4 – Continue to work for additional transit funding.

5 – Impress upon local and regional economic development people, as well as local public officials, the importance of guiding development to existing “activity centers” and transit-served corridors when new employers are courted, or when current employers relocate. That’s called for in our region’s policy on new development, and it requires a new kind of “affirmative action” by local jurisdictions to make sure it happens.

6 – Identify transit friendly land use and zoning policies, and provide municipalities with appropriate templates to assist in adopting such policies.

7 – Discourage public subsidies or incentives for employers who locate beyond the reach of public transit.

8 – Work with state, federal, and private organizations involved with the financing of multi-family housing to make sure it’s located near employment and transit.

9 – Improve coordination of services currently provided by our three transit providers to make using transit more “seamless” for transit riders.

If the Kansas City region is to avoid falling behind in its struggle to compete with other cities, we must place higher priority on getting people to jobs by transit.

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