A portrait of Jaz Hays at a Gladstone bus stop. He is holding up a notice about bus service ending in the area.
Jaz Hays, a resident of the Northland who often rides buses into Gladstone, said he is concerned about the financial costs that IRIS could bring for many users. (Danielle Randle/The Beacon)

Bus routes go away in Gladstone on Sept.1.

To keep the existing RideKC bus lines going, the city faced a bill rocketing up 400%.

Instead, Gladstone decided to dump the service  — like other parts of the Northland — and shift to a patchwork where riders hop from Uber-like cars for short hauls to buses that ferry them across the Kansas City area.

That started with a dramatic increase in costs passed on to cities by the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. The KCATA says Kansas City, Missouri, residents will no longer subsidize the costs to run buses through the surrounding suburbs, so it’s ending that underwriting. 

In its previous contract, Gladstone paid $87,000 a year for bus services, by-appointment RideKC Flex service to specific locations and paratransit services for the elderly and people with disabilities. Now the KCATA, which is mostly funded by Kansas City, Missouri, taxpayers, is billing for what it says is the full cost. That charge shot up fourfold to $340,000.

“That caused us to take a deep breath,” Mayor Jean Moore said. “That was not sustainable.” 

Instead, the city opted for IRIS, an on-demand transit service like Uber or Lyft run by a collaboration between KCATA, Kansas City government, and the companies zTrip and RideCo. It covers Kansas City, North Kansas City, Gladstone and Riverside. The KCATA is counting on it as a more efficient way to cover less-traveled routes.

The catch? Riders need to navigate a more complex system to use IRIS rides to find their way to KCATA’s bus lines outside Gladstone. (Those IRIS rides within Gladstone are free.) They can still jump on a bus for free, but they could end up paying for some intercity rides they could have traveled for free by bus under the system that’s going away.

The true cost of bus routes?

City officials in Gladstone said the heightened fees for bus service would have started on July 1. Traditionally, the city only paid a portion of the total operations cost to KCATA for transit service. 

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said on Twitter that his city “can’t forever subsidize transit for communities not electing to fund it for themselves. I think the concern is a Gladstone concern, not a KCMO one.” 

Gladstone residents pay a 0.5% transportation sales tax for public transit. The city would have had to cut street maintenance in half to cover the hike in busing costs.

“There really wasn’t a negotiation point,” Moore said. “It was kind of … this or nothing.”

The city has signed up for a three-month trial with IRIS at $7,000 a month.

For the KCATA, buses are generally the most cost-efficient service possible. While the cost of serving each person who boards a typical bus route runs about $5, RideKC buses have an average cost per boarding of around $2 on buses, according to Cindy Baker, vice president of communications for KCATA. IRIS costs roughly $75 per ride, which is dropping rapidly, she said, and should eventually be closer to $18 to $23. 

Ultimately, KCATA plans for IRIS to connect riders to fixed-route buses for quicker, more efficient service. The agency is also using mapping patterns collected from IRIS to explore the idea of adding new bus routes. 

“The idea is to coordinate services as a singular efficient system,” Baker said. “The two systems don’t work independently of one another, nor in competition with one another.”

Nearly a quarter of all IRIS trips have been to and from bus service, Baker said.

What do Kansas City bus riders think of IRIS?

Many riders north of the Missouri River complain that the bus service regularly proves unreliable and that bus lines aren’t well connected. 

In Gladstone, two routes, the 201 and the 238, go to 46 RideKC stops. As of June, the 201 saw a daily ridership average of 115 boardings and the 238 had 64. 

Gladstone officials said they put alerts of the transit system makeover on the city’s website and social media. The KCATA also put up notices at the stops in July.

Yet Arthur Oldebeken, a member of The Beacon’s community advisory board, drove by all of the Gladstone stops and found that 32% lacked any signs indicating that the service would be ending.

Several Gladstone bus riders interviewed along routes in the city said last week that they did not know that bus service was ending. 

A portrait of the sign placed at Gladstone bus stop indicating that bus service will be ending.
RideKC placed signs at various bus stops in Gladstone, such as this one on North Oak Trafficway at 65th Street, to alert riders of the switch to IRIS beginning Sept. 1. (Mili Mansaray/The Beacon)

“The bus is my primary mode of transportation right now,” said John Lawrence of Independence, who takes the 201 route through Gladstone twice a week. 

Jaz Hays relies on buses that go through Gladstone to get to the library. He’s used IRIS, but said it worries him that people who have to cross from one city to another won’t be able to afford the $3 and $4 fees charged for taking that car service across municipal borders.

When riders put in a request on the IRIS app, they get a 15-minute pickup window and a pickup location. They’re told drivers will wait one minute for passengers to show up. (They can also use the IRIS website or phone calls to set up rides.)

Hays said the arrival and drop-off times have been accurate, but the app’s promise that riders will get dropped off within a quarter-mile of where they’re headed is not. He said he’s never walked less than a half-mile to the nearest pickup point from his house. 

Shutting off bus lines that go through the city means some commuters will pay more. Hays said he pays $8 for his round trips to Gladstone. 

“The bus is critical for low-income people to get to where they need to go,” he said.

IRIS offers free trips for rides that connect to designated transfer points between zones, but trips within other zones are $3, and trips to the airport are $10. 

Lawrence said the bus system is unreliable. He said buses often drive by him or fail to show. He has trouble getting off at his requested stops. That can make him late, and it has cost him business making custom gadgets by making him miss appointments with his customers.

 So he welcomed a change.

“Three months ago,” Lawrence said, “it cost me a little over $1,200 because I had a customer I needed to get to and I didn’t get there in time.”

About 32% of the stops in Gladstone do not have a sign indicating the end of service, according to a survey conducted by a member of The Beacon’s community advisory board. (Mili Mansaray/The Beacon)

Gladstone officials are also looking to IRIS as a solution for the connectivity issues.

“​​We hope it will be a better alternative,” the mayor said, “just based on the fact that there is a lack of east-west connections, versus just north-south.” 

Exploring alternative connectivity solutions 

Northland cities are working together to gauge the effectiveness of IRIS for residents. North Kansas City, Liberty, Gladstone, Parkville and Riverside are looking to extend their trial periods until the end of the year so that they can have similar contracts and compare data on the demand for the service, said Bob Baer, the Gladstone city manager. 

Liberty will begin its three-month contract with IRIS on Friday, said Sara Cooke, the assistant city administrator. 

Liberty has not paid for transportation service from KCATA since the beginning of the pandemic, when a single RideKC express bus that took two daily trips to downtown Kansas City was shut down due to COVID-19 and low ridership.

IRIS will be the replacement service. Trips will cost riders $3 during the pilot program. 

City officials said riders in Liberty are used to paying fees since the previous Flex service had a fee before free fares went away in 2020. The city will gather data during the trial and, depending on the need, possibly rely on tiered rates. 

“We’re looking for comprehensive transportation for every citizen,” said Shawnna Funderburk, Liberty’s chief strategic operations officer.

In North Kansas City, IRIS replaced the RideKC Flex on July 1. The contract will last until the end of the year. 

KCATA mandated the switch, according to city officials. 

“They told us you will not be having Flex. You will be having IRIS,” said Kim Nakahodo, assistant city administrator. 

Both federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and American Rescue Plan Act funding, which are emergency grants issued to state and local governments as a result of COVID-19, will run out this year. That’s a loss of $500,000 in federal tax dollars that North Kansas City would have to take from its general operations fund.

The city will solicit bids from other transportation service providers.

KCATA will be invited to apply, but North Kansas City is looking to consider its options, including private companies, due to heightened bus costs.

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MILI MANSARAY is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.