The future of public transit in Johnson County (The JO) is in peril, despite the fact that more people than ever are using the system. The primary reason? Like every transit system in the world, it requires taxpayer subsidies, and these funds are disappearing.
Johnson County has relied on federal and state grants to subsidize The JO since its beginning. But these grants are expiring, and other funding sources are diminishing.
The elected officials of Johnson County have fought to maintain their contribution level. But now they are facing revenue shortfalls that make this extremely difficult.
The major challenge to The JO is a federal program that allocates funding based on ridership. Current ridership on The JO is at record levels, but this month county budget restraints will require elimination of routes and reduced services.
This will cause ridership to decline accordingly, causing more reductions in federal funds leading to more cuts in routes…and on it goes. Some call this a death spiral.
Adding to the decline is another problem: Many of the riders who can no longer use The JO are being forced to use another county program, Special Edition. It offers rides to senior citizens and disabled citizens for medical treatments, appointments and other important events.
Special Edition is an expensive program resembling a taxpayer subsidized taxi service for those who cannot drive. Unfortunately, Johnson County gets little state and federal help for this, and as The JO declines, it will force more citizens to rely on Special Edition, placing pressure on the County Commission to take more funds from The JO to help the Special Edition. It is a bleak scenario for The JO.
If you polled the citizens of Johnson County you would find that only a small percentage have used The JO, and many are disturbed that their taxes support the system. Johnson County is spread out, and The JO routes are not easy to access for the majority of us.
It’s perfectly understandable that many people want it eliminated. However, this perspective ignores an important point: for Johnson County to attract young professionals and businesses we need to have the amenities they want, and public transit is one of them.
As parents we have seen many of the best and brightest of our children’s school mates leave this area. The facts show that of 17 cities of comparable size to Kansas City, we rank 16th in attracting young professionals.
It’s easy to see this if you visit Denver or Chicago, but even smaller cities like Omaha and Oklahoma City are racing ahead of us. There you see communities that are vibrant with new start-up businesses, affordable neighborhoods where young professional live, and lifestyle opportunities that suit them.
Sadly, Johnson County looks somewhat sleepy. What I see in other cities is a vibrancy from investments in public transit networks.
In this changing world, younger people have figured out that public transit isn’t simply a way to save money and help air quality, it is a major convenience that improves their productivity. Instead of sitting in a car enduring traffic jams, they can sit on a bus with WiFi and connect to their places of business.
The trip may take longer, but they’re productive every minute on the bus, responding to emails, creating documents and researching products. The fact is that in today’s world it’s foolish not to use public transit if it’s available and especially foolish for a business to locate where public transit is not available.
We cannot ignore this fact or allow our elected officials to ignore it.
We learned in kindergarten that one should always try to leave a room in as good or better shape than when we entered it. The same applies to a community, and I believe we will have failed this goal if we eliminate public transit in Johnson County.
It is time that our county, working along with Jackson and Wyandotte counties, find ways to fund and maintain a viable public transit system for our metropolitan area. Even one or two established routes in Johnson County with dedicated funding will help us maintain our system.
But this will require increased funding from the county. If we refuse to do so I believe we will fall further behind in attracting new business and we will see more and more of our young people leave.
George Lafferty is chairman of the Johnson County Transit Council and an architect. He lives in Fairway.