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From Cow Town to Uptown: Kansas City's Transformation

The Host Forum at the APTA Bus & Paratransit Conference, “From Cow Town to Uptown,” showcased a diverse panel of Kansas City leaders who discussed the city’s remarkable transformation over the past decade.

The session moderator, Mark Huffer, general manager, Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA), opened the session, which included panelists Dick Jarrold, director of system development and engineering, KCATA; Porter Arneill, director/public art administrator, Architecture Division/Municipal Art Commission, KCMO; Rachel Hack-Merlo, Google community manager, Kansas City; David Johnson, Regional Transit Alliance board member; and Bill Dietrich, president and chief executive officer, Downtown Council of Kansas City.

“I don’t think there is a city in America that has come so far so fast,” Dietrich said. “In early 2000, there were only 4,000 people living downtown. Now there are 20,000. Our residential units are 98 percent occupied.”

Speakers noted the importance of KCATA’s MAX BRT service in transforming the city. KCATA turned its focus to developing BRT following challenges related to the introduction of light rail. The agency introduced Main Street MAX in 2005 and Troost MAX in 2011. A third line is in development.

“I am one of those people who would not ride a ‘regular’ bus—until MAX was launched. Soon after, I found myself riding whatever bus met my needs,” Johnson said.

“It is exciting to see transit become an important part of the discussion,” KCATA’s Jarrold said. “That may not sound remarkable, but considering it is Kansas City, where we don’t have congestion or air quality issues and parking is cheap, it is remarkable. This community has chosen to engage in transit.”

Arts and culture in Kansas City have also served as a catalyst, providing the platform for dramatic growth and development. For example, the city’s Crossroads Arts District boasts more than 400 working artists and eight galleries.

“Since 1990, Kansas City has been including 1 percent for art in all municipal building construction or remodeling,” said Arneill. “Its goal is to enhance the vitality of Kansas City and enrich the lives of residents. I have been so pleased to see KCATA also incorporating art in transit.”

Another advance is technological. In 2012 Kansas City became the first city to experience Google Fiber—a new technology that provides Internet access 100 times faster than previous technologies.

“Kansas City has been a great place to launch Google Fiber because of the easy relationships with the city,” said Hack-Merlo. “But we also liked the diversity of Kansas City. Twenty-five percent of Kansas Citians do not currently have Internet access at home and 17 percent do not use the Internet at all. The most interesting thing has been to see what a catalyst Fiber has been in the neighborhoods. It has resulted in Google Startup villages that are providing access like never before.”

With the influx of activity occurring downtown, leaders have a keen eye on safety. “Our downtown area actually has the lowest crime rate in the city,” said Huffer, “largely because of our relationship with the KCPD and the Community Improvement District [CID] employees, affectionately called yellow jackets.”

The 65 CID employees, dressed in yellow, circulate through downtown, bringing a friendly presence to the area, coordinating work schedules with bus arrivals, providing information, and helping to prevent potentially negative gatherings or loitering.

“KCATA has a true partner in the CID staff as well as the KC police department,” said Huffer.

So what’s next for Kansas City and the KCATA?

“I want to double downtown residential to 40,000,” said Dietrich. “Everything is great, but we are still very fragile. We have to stay focused on all fronts: arts, culture, infrastructure, and investment.”

Huffer added: “This Host Forum is all about access—access to opportunities created by transit, arts, culture, technology, and development.” 

KCATA General Manager Mark Huffer leads the Host Forum, which showcased public transit's role in revitalizing the city, among other topics.

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