Kansas City Transportation: Past, Present, & Future

Transportation ties every industry together, from job access to healthcare to education.

The Centurions Fall Cohort (Class of 2019-2020) descended on Kansas City once again for their January Task Force, which focused on transportation in Kansas City. Transportation is, after all, “more important than sex and air,” according to Frank White, III, co-chair of the planning committee. Transportation ties every industry together, from job access to healthcare to education. It is the critical path to hold it all together.

And so, we began our deep dive into transportation.

Where We've Been

To understand the future of transportation in Kansas City, you must first learn about our past. John Dobies, Senior Project Manager at HNTB, provided a brief historical perspective on transit in KC. We were founded as a city because of our river. We are located at the western-most point of the Mighty MO—we are where people got off the river to continue their westward journey. Kansas City is also where the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails converged.Arguably, the most significant transportation development in the history of Kansas City is the Hannibal Bridge that opened in 1869. It was the first bridge to cross the Missouri River, heading west. Kansas City got the bridge instead of Leavenworth because we won the railroads. Once the bridge came, we became a transportation hub. Now, we’re the second biggest railroad hub in the country. We are the largest by tonnage.

In the early 1900s, we had over 300 miles of streetcar lines. The dynamic that caused us to move to streetcars is the explosive growth of the city, which was no longer walkable. This ended up being around the same time as the demise of public transportation, when everyone bought Model T’s and highways were installed. Private entrepreneurs, like the Gillhams and the Holmes, started the public transit systems. Daily ridership has gone from more than 300,000 in the 1910s and 1920s to 45,000 today. The implication of this is that we have an undersized transit system compared to our peers with fragmented transit funding and unequal access to opportunity.

Kansas City has the highest per capita highway miles in the entire country. Only 6.9% of people live and work in downtown. While we have thusly increased mobility by automobile, improved air quality, and economic development, it has led to urban sprawl, transit ineffectiveness, and reduced access to opportunity.

The Hannibal Bridge, opened in 1869. The oldest bridge crossing the Missouri River at Kansas City, MO.
Transit Tour 1

Here and Now

We toured Singleton Yards and the Kansas City Area Transit Authority, two major transportation centers for the city. It is valuable to bring density, people, and jobs back to the urban core. With a spine already in place for the regional transit system through the streetcar, “the focus is now to build it out,” according to Tom Gerend, Executive Director of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority. This build-out includes multiple modes of transportation—buses, scooters, on demand and ride sharing—to meet the needs of people. For transit to work, we must use a combination of convenient and easy to use modes.

Kansas City has not maintained the infrastructure we have, and with the highest per capita highway miles in the country, there is a lot to maintain. The city grapples with fixing its deteriorating roads and bridges versus investing in fixed rail or other alternatives. We must work with the state and federal governments to help cover the costs of these massive projects. The general obligation (GO) bonds passed in 2017 have helped to repair sidewalks, which increase the walk- and bike-ability of the city. The GO bond sidewalk dollars will be invested “as strategically as possible, particularly along the Troost and Prospect Corridors,” says Eric Bunch, Policy Director at BikeWalkKC. When it comes to our airport, Kanas City International Airport, formerly the Mid-Continent International (MCI), has fallen behind. Designed and built with the needs of the 60s and 70s, it was a state-of-the-art facility for 26 days before a hijacking and the threat of nuclear catastrophe changed the needs of airport safety. Since then, passengers are required to be screened. MCI was not designed for security screenings—it was designed to be a drive-up airport. Additionally, planes have gotten bigger over time and the gates now deal with double the capacity that they were designed to hold. Justin Meyer, Deputy Director of Aviation-Marking and Air Service Development at KCI explains that the aging and decaying concrete is just as expensive to replace as it is to renovate. Mayor James’ KCI Terminal Advisory Group agreed the 50-year-old airport needs to be replaced.

Freight continues to be an impactful part of the economy.  From a freight perspective, we are a top tier city.

A lot has changed in a short amount of time here, and that has a great deal to do with the vision. The transit system, according to the FTA, is on the leading edge in the nation. The Kansas City streetcar is free to ride thanks to the Transportation Development District (TDD) tax. When you use the RideKC app, 10% of your total goes forward to pay for transportation for people with disabilities. We offer free transit to veterans, which is the only city in the country to does that. And with all this forward progress, Kansas City residents will have to come to terms with paid parking downtown. A vibrant downtown will be popular, and the demand for parking will necessitate it. One way to avoid paying for parking? Take public transit.

Governor Parsons sees workforce transportation as a big issue, and we have a lot of potential in the metropolitan area. We will need the public and private sectors to come together to tackle it. Right now, the missing piece is buy-in from the business community. Kansas City must be smarter with private sector engagement when discussing the job access process.

With the failure of Prop D (gas tax) in 2018, we need to reset. Transportation remains one of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s Big 5, and we will only demand grow. We are on the cusp of greater things—but that has yet to be played out. We have all of our federal income for infrastructure projects allocated through 2022.

Transit Tour
On Demand Transportation

The Future

Within five years, we will see on-demand services, like scooters and Uber, grow. Kansas City can reasonably expect to be a pilot city for autonomous vehicles. We will see that data and data analytics will have a bigger impact on the transportation industry than anything else, and it will help us make better decisions. We may also see apartments with a small fleet available for residents instead of parking, or even a hyperloop. We will also move toward a regional funding system for transportation.

Over the next 30 years, we will add 500,000 people to the region and the population will age. We must make the best of our land use and development. Unlike many other bi-state regions, we are generally cooperative. Nationally, we have a good reputation for collaborating across state lines. While there is more we could be doing, we have made a lot of progress.

In Conclusion

Robbie Makinen, CEO at KCATA, said it best. “Quit thinking about public transit as things. Public transit is about people. When you think about it that way, you’re talking about a lot of people who need you every day.” The pace of change in the transit industry in Kansas City is pretty quick, when you consider the quick introductions of scooters and bikes. The biggest need Kansas City has now is one of coordination. We are in the process of reimagining our transit system, and it is going to take every industry working together to get it right. Because every industry depends on it.

Additional Reading

Kansas City, An American Story by Rick Montgomery

Union Station, Kansas City by Jeffrey Spivak

A Splended Ride: The Streetcars of Kansas City  1870-1957 by Monroe Dodd






Task Force Committee Chairs: Frank White III, Dan Culver

Task Force Committee: Brittany Barrientos, Estuardo Garcia, Anastasia Huggins, Kelisen Binder, Trent Dansel, Ryan Humphrey, Michael Kelley, and David Kim

Thanks to sponsors BNIM, KCATA, Stinson Leonard Street, BOK Financial, and Tom's Town.