Under pressure from Kansas City officials, bus agency CEO is being forced from job

·10 min read

When Kansas City officials announced they would replace 84,000 old-fashioned cobra-head streetlights with energy-efficient LEDs last year, there was one big problem that got no mention.

The city didn’t have the $20 million-plus to pull off the job when the City Council voted 11-1 in January to move forward. The boxes in the accompanying fiscal note were blank.

City Manager Brian Platt and Public Works Director Michael Shaw found a way to fill the gap that same month: Force someone else to pay for it.

They met with leaders at the area’s regional bus agency and let them know that, like it or not, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority would be paying for the project.

Multiple local government sources with knowledge of the meeting described it to The Star, with some calling it a “shakedown.”

And because the transit agency’s longtime CEO and president, Robbie Makinen, fought the city money grab, he most likely will be losing his job after a special meeting this Thursday afternoon of the KCATA’s board of commisssioners, those sources said.

Get rid of Makinen, or we will find another contractor to provide bus service in Kansas City, Platt privately told the KCATA board’s chairwoman and vice chairman recently, those sources said.

City officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment late Wednesday.

The hardball tactics are common knowledge among the area’s tight-knit community of mass transit planners and supporters, who say that this is just another example of Kansas City taking transit money away from the KCATA.

Lekatta English, right, and her children, Maraih Brand, center, and Malachi Brand, left, boarded a KCATA RideKC Bus, on Thursday, June 2, 2022, outside the Transit Center, 7501 Prospect Ave., in Kansas City. After the bus fares were eliminated, English said there are not as many bus routes on Sundays, which has made it more difficult to get around the city.
Lekatta English, right, and her children, Maraih Brand, center, and Malachi Brand, left, boarded a KCATA RideKC Bus, on Thursday, June 2, 2022, outside the Transit Center, 7501 Prospect Ave., in Kansas City. After the bus fares were eliminated, English said there are not as many bus routes on Sundays, which has made it more difficult to get around the city.

Already the city diverts transit funds for street maintenance and other public works. The new contract that the city is negotiating with the transit agency would further cut into revenues by imposing penalties for late buses and missed stops.

“The ATA gets ever decreasing amounts of funding from that half-cent sales tax,” said an official at another local government that is part of the RideKC system, who asked not to be named in this story.

“Our interest is in a strong partnership with the ATA and a strong, financially secure ATA that’s able to provide the level of service that the Metro needs. So we would prefer that the ATA was getting 100% of the funding that they’re expecting to be able to provide those services.”

KCATA and City Hall

The KCATA is not a city agency. City officials can’t order it around. But Kansas City does have lots of leverage, as the public transit agency receives two thirds of its budget from the local governments it contracts with for bus service. About 90 percent of that – more than $60 million – comes from the revenue that two Kansas City transit sales taxes provide.

Shaw, the public works director and husband of councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw, used that leverage to issue an ultimatum at that January meeting, according to several people who were at or had knowledge of what was said at the meeting but did not want to be identified by name.

Either KCATA would pay for the streetlight project out of the federal funds the KCATA had been granted to shore up its finances during the pandemic. Or Kansas City would take the money from the transit sales tax revenue it had control of to finance that project and others.

According to one person at that meeting: “He said, I have already committed to LED streetlights, and I don’t have the money to pay for them. So you’re going to.”

Makinen contacted the head of the Federal Transit Administration in Washington, D.C., to see if the FTA could block the move. They couldn’t. He also asked Sen. Barbara Washington to see if the Kansas City Democrat would try to pass a bill in the Missouri General Assembly that would prevent the city from using transit money for streetlights.

But the bill Washington introduced on Feb. 23, SB 1172, did not get a hearing.

So in March, the transportation authority board had little choice but to comply with the city’s wishes, signing a “cooperative agreement” in which the KCATA agreed to pay Kansas City $22.5 million for the street-lighting project over the next two years, $6 million to help pay to extend the streetcar to the riverfront and $4 million for a Grand Boulevard bike and pedestrian bridge.

Private meeting with KCATA board members

At least partly because he sought help from the state and federal governments, Makinen will be fired or forced to resign after that special meeting Thursday afternoon of the KCATA board of commissioners, multiple sources said.

According to those sources, Lucas was upset with Makinen for complaining to the FTA and trying to pass legislation thwarting the city’s move in Jefferson City. Recently, Platt conveyed his demand that Makinen be fired to two members of the KCATA board at a private meeting. Those board members had hoped to quell increasing criticism from City Hall about bus service, which has suffered due to a shortage of drivers.

Mayor Quinton Lucas and City Manager Brian Platt met with The Star to discuss Kansas Citys east side Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.
Mayor Quinton Lucas and City Manager Brian Platt met with The Star to discuss Kansas Citys east side Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.

“They (the commissioners) said, ‘Hey, why don’t we have a meeting and work these things out,” according to one elected official with knowledge of what was said at the meeting, “and … I understand the city manager said, ‘If Robbie Makinen isn’t fired, we will send out an RFP and we will find somebody else to handle our bus service in Kansas City.”

Two other people familiar with what happened at the meeting confirmed that account.

The two KCATA representatives at the meeting were chair Melissa Bynum of Wyandotte County and vice chair and Cass County representative Reginald Townsend. Bynum did not respond to requests for comment, and Townsend could not be reached.

Complaints about service

While Platt and other city officials have yet to respond to requests for comment on the city’s attempts to have Makinen removed, Lucas and others have in recent months publicly disparaged KCATA management for bad service since COVID-19 hit and diminished the number of available drivers.

“What are they doing with the tens of millions of dollars they’ve received?” Lucas told The Star recently for an article about bus service. “To me, it’s not so much just a budgeting issue ... it’s an implementation issue. “

A passenger checks if a bus is approaching at the 12th Street and Grand Boulevard stop Monday, June 6, 2022.
A passenger checks if a bus is approaching at the 12th Street and Grand Boulevard stop Monday, June 6, 2022.

Around the time the cooperative agreement for the streetlight money was signed, Lucas appointed Shaw as one of the city’s three representatives on the 10-member board. After a three-hour executive session last week, another city representative, former firefighters union leader Louie Wright, informed Makinen that a majority of commissioners would vote to accept his resignation or fire him at this week’s special meeting.

Wright declined comment on Wednesday, as did Makinen.

Transit money for streetlights

Earlier in the week, Platt issued a written statement regarding the appropriateness of the city using transit money to upgrade the streetlight system, which would result in a savings to taxpayers in energy costs at a time when the city budget is pinched.

“The Public Mass Transit tax and KCATA sales tax funds are dedicated to both transit services and transit infrastructure improvements,” he wrote. “We are collaborating with KCATA leadership to better leverage those tax dollars generated within Kansas City, MO to help expedite and facilitate improvements to transit infrastructure in general within Kansas City, MO. This includes but is not limited to street resurfacing, bus stop seating and shelters, and street lights.”

Likewise, Shaw issued a written statement outlining how the streetlight project is being financed:

“RideKC leadership recommended the best way to handle and fund that project was for the City to administer the LED Conversion project and withhold an equal monthly amount for 24 months which will fund the project over the next two years. Per the agreement, the equal monthly amounts are being withheld from Public Mass transit funds. Those funds are in turn replacing streetlights in the public right-of-way. KCATA remains fully funded due to the use of federal relief funds issued them.”

In an interview Wednesday, Dick Jarrold, the transportation authority’s vice president for planning and development, said the first part of Shaw’s statement is incorrect. RideKC did not recommend spending the money on the streetlights. It only recommended that the least cumbersome way to handle the financing of the projects was to let the city deduct the money from sales tax funds rather than have KCATA cut the city checks.

“We were very careful to check with the Federal Transit Administration to understand the legalities of doing that because we knew that was not really the intent of the COVID funding to do things outside of transit, even if it’s indirect like that,” Jarrold said. “So we did check with FTA who had some concerns, but felt legally there wasn’t anything they could do to say no to it.”

While fully funded for now, KCATA officials worry that over time their finances will suffer from the city’s draw on their budget.

Even before this project, the city has rarely provided the KCATA with all the sales tax money it collects for mass transit. While the the proceeds of the 3/8-cent tax go directly to KCATA, the original half-cent tax imposed 50 years ago goes to the city, which then passes most but not all of those dollars to KCATA.

Several years ago, the council rescinded a promise to provide KCATA with 95 percent of that money.

Makinen as KCATA leader

Makinen has become a well-known and enthusiastic ambassador of the KCATA and public transit since becoming CEO in 2015. Blinded by a medical condition about a decade ago, he stood out at public events with his dark sunglasses, cane and engaging smile.

His association with KCATA began in 2007, when then-Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders appointed him to be the county’s representative on the KCATA’s board of commissioners.

Makinen had been one of Sanders’ right hands early in his administration, serving on a number of public boards and, thanks to his friendly, jovial nature, acting as the county executive’s liaison to the mayor and top officials of cities in eastern Jackson County.

It’s the same traits he’d used to the advantage of his previous employer, where he was responsible for driving revenue by catering to the needs of high rollers at Harrah’s Casino & Hotel in North Kansas City.

Prior to that, he was director of the learning center and program development at Ozanam Children’s Services in Kansas City, according to his resume.

Makinen eventually became more than just another board member at KCATA, rising to chairman. Along with co-chairman Steve Klicka, he saw the potential for elevating the stature and importance of the public transit agency. Together, they led the drive to create the $200,000-a-year CEO position that Makinen now fills.

KCATA CEO Robbie Makinen gave masks away to bus riders at a stop at 31st Street and Prospect Avenue in late June. The city of Kansas City was the first jurisdiction in the area to make masks mandatory to curb the spread of COVID-19. CORONAVIRUSKC
KCATA CEO Robbie Makinen gave masks away to bus riders at a stop at 31st Street and Prospect Avenue in late June. The city of Kansas City was the first jurisdiction in the area to make masks mandatory to curb the spread of COVID-19. CORONAVIRUSKC

He replaced the original occupant of that job, Joe Reardon, the former Kansas City, Kansas mayor who left the bus agency less than a year after he started to head the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

Previous heads of the KCATA had for the most part come up through the mass transit field. To boost support for building a true regional transit system that bridged city and state boundaries, transit know-how was seen as less necessary than having someone in the job with a knack for public relations.

It’s unclear who will replace Makinen or whether the agency’s direction will change. Prior to the pandemic in 2020, RideKC had been steadily adding routes and new services. For years, Makinen has hoped to eliminate fare in hopes of building ridership. He and his board did that for veterans and other groups before Kansas City’s council voted for a citywide zero fare policy shortly before COVID-19 hit.

Lucas and Kansas City recently got an award for doing so from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Makinen’s leadership on the issue wasn’t mentioned.

Star reporter Kynala Phillips contributed to this story.

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