Reimagining Infrastructure & New Public Transportation in Kansas City Reveal the Importance of Federal Funding

One of the fastest growing cities in the Midwest is Kansas City, Mo., and infrastructure investment is one of its bread-and-butter issues. “If federal funding and federal collaborations with cities and municipalities diminish, America will fall behind,” says Kansas City Councilman Jermaine Reed.

Worsening infrastructure has become both a regional and national concern. The White House and leaders in Congress had expressed an interest in a new $2 trillion infrastructure package and industry leaders flew in from all over the country to speak to their legislators, but talks between leaders of Congress and the White House stalled May 22.

Now, the nation waits to see if the wheels of change will move again.

America is a melded fabric of similarities and contrasts, to some degree. Small towns grapple with both preservation and reinvention as they seek revenue and manage growth, but many urban cores have lengthening lists of priorities and quickly growing and diverse publics to whom policymakers must answer.

Reed, who represents the 3rd District, has worked to eliminate food deserts by bringing in grocery stores with reasonably priced healthy and fresh food (a $17.5 million investment) and led efforts to demolish abandoned buildings and reinvigorate neighborhoods (a $112.6 million investment) to assure affordable, safe and clean housing. He also is leveraging the multiple ways — including Twitter, meetings and the United States Postal Service — that keep citizens, including seniors, informed and engaged.

But modernizing the city’s infrastructure also ranks high for this public servant. In 2017, voters supported an $800 million capital-improvements program, GO KC, to use revenue created by issuing general obligation (GO) bonds each year for two decades.

When Reed was elected eight years ago at age 25, he was the youngest person ever to come on board the City Council of Kansas City. Today he chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and has become a stalwart voice for public transit and reimagined sustainable infrastructure.

Reed’s advocacy for a $54-million bus rapid Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) project — the Prospect MAX system that is underway — has been fundamental toward an economic-improvement initiative along Prospect Avenue or what is called Prospect Corridor. Anticipated modern amenities and buses, bikeshare and carshare hubs, interactive kiosks, real-time information for riders, public WiFi, and reduced travel times demonstrate how smarter infrastructure can improve lives.

“It is one of the highest travelled corridors in our region with nearly 6,000 people per day that use it,” says Reed. “I don’t think people often times realize, from a basic ground level, how many people depend on these types of services and how they can transform people’s qualities of life as they use them.”

Prospect MAX is benefitting from a $30 million federal grant. The idea that states, cities or private investors alone can or will fund all infrastructure projects is antithetical to the realities of what the American public and regional leaders face.

“We try to find innovative solutions to really plow through a lot of our infrastructure needs by the increase of our general obligation bonds, but we often times need that extra boost from the federal government,” explains Reed.

While encouraging innovative enterprises and expanding systems for the future, today’s urban public-transportation efforts allow areas to be revitalized as they also serve a wider public good. In Kansas City, buses, public libraries and restaurants are not just ways to travel or buildings and places to eat; they can safely expand people’s worlds or provide internet access for those who do not have it at home.

Urban America helps move our nation, but its needs are vast. There are schools that need construction monies, sidewalks under repair, streets being resurfaced, pipes and sewerage systems that must be updated, underfunded parks, and the ongoing demand for public transportation. Local support by existing businesses, faith-based organizations and longstanding residents as well as multifarious economic-development approaches — such as those advocated by Reed in Kansas City — can help municipalities combat drugs, crime and downtrodden areas through constituency involvement, the promise of attractive communities, connectivity and better resources.

“The [KCATA] CEO Robbie Makinen, who runs our local RideKC, he often talks about how Project MAX ‘isn’t just a bus,’ “ explains Reed. “It will transform the way we live, work and play in our community. They are going beyond the four wheels on a bus to actually do everything they can to be good community partners as well.”

A Millennial & City on the Move

Reed was born and grew up in Kansas City.

He was one of five boys raised by a single mother who instilled in her children a drive to make change happen in their community.

Reed was the first in his family to earn a college degree. He moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the influential Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and later for the city government. Capitol Hill helped him understand how progress can be inspired in communities across America, and his government exposure helped him see how leaders’ decisions regularly impact many people.

“Transportation is a part of our experience every single day by connecting us to our jobs, families and entertainment as well as to places where we can buy what we need,” he says about the strides being made in his city. “If we work together to move people and goods, through our metropolitan area, there are things we have to do to make sure we are increasing our transportation options for every single person.”

Reed knows this firsthand.

As a teen, he had to catch a bus from one end of Kansas City to the other and all he could see along the way was debris, trash, abandoned buildings and blight. This jumpstarted something in him. He organized a community clean-up through churches and community groups.

Years later, he is still focused on transforming that corridor he saw as a youth with the objectives of integrating newer technologies, addressing quality-of-life measures, and maintaining the city’s multimodal transportation network.

“Taking care of our community means making sure we don’t have crumbling sidewalks and roads and streets and we’re able to change the way the actual community looks,” adds Reed. “As I was driving into our building here earlier, I saw some new bus shelters that had actually been installed today along the corridor and there are going to be many of those installed along that route in the next several months and I’m excited about this.”

“One of the things that’s motivating about transportation, from my angle and a local municipality, is that this isn’t a partisan issue. This isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue. These are the roads that all of us are driving or riding on, and these are the sidewalks that all of us are walking on,” says Reed. “It’s the reason why my peers on our city council and communities across the entire country — and also through the work that I’ve done with the National League of Cities — continue to push forward a very aggressive agenda in asking for federal action because fixing America’s infrastructure cannot wait.”

Other key Kansas City infrastructure investments or needs include the aging Buck O’Neil Bridge, which daily moves more than 40,000 cars on U.S. 169 over the Missouri River, and a new $1.5 billion terminal project underway at Kansas City International Airport (KCIA). There is also a planned downtown streetcar extension to the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) on a free line that already runs along Main Street between Union Station and the historic River Market — a hugely popular farmers’ market that promotes commerce and attracts visitors.

Last year, U.S. Rep. Sam Graves (MO-06) announced that the Buck O’Neil Bridge, a 63-year-old structure that badly needs to be replaced, received a $25 million BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) grant, but more funding needs to be secured.

The Kansas City Business Journal reported in March that the Kansas City Streetcar Authority is closer to receiving $151.6 million in federal funding and extending the Main Street line to UMKC after receiving an overall project rating of “medium high” from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). It, however, did not make it into the 2020 budget.

“I hope President Trump and Congress can devise a plan for increased federal funding and an infrastructure vision that furthers partnerships with municipalities across this country so that we can continue to rebuild and reimagine what America’s infrastructure can look like,” maintains Reed. “In Kansas City, we are leading the way. Building sustainable and interconnected infrastructure and networks to support our modern economies is critically important.”

Chosen by the NLC’s board of directors, Kansas City will host the 2022 City Summit conference, which will be held Nov. 16-19. The summit is the largest networking and educational event for city officials in the United States.

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