THE HIGHLINE LOWDOWN
Frank White III on Transportation, Development and the Future of KC
For the second in our series of interviews with people we believe are making a transformational impact in our city, we spoke with KC Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) CEO, Frank White III. About 6-months into the role, Frank has rolled up his sleeves and is making significant progress at a local and national level to restore transportation reliability and chart the course for the future of the organization.
Highline: First of all, you’ve done so much. Why transportation?
Frank White III: At first, it was just interesting to me. Then about a year in, you start drinking the Kool-Aid. With transportation, most of the time, you’ll see what you do to people. You see the effect of working a properly functioning system that you give people, and you see the work.
You can start looking at this federal tool that can reshape communities and reshape how you look at access and equity, and after a while, you go, “Okay, this is kind of cool.”
Highline: Do you have to have a higher purpose to do something like this?
FWIII: Most of my work is driven by the fact that but for the randomness of a baseball, I could be in jail or on the streets. I’m an East Side kid, born at General Hospital #2. That was the Negro hospital. That was 1969. I lived on East 29th Street until I was seven. Then all of a sudden, my daddy hit a baseball, and my whole life changed.
My old man was very kind about it: always give back because we hit the lottery.
Even when I was on the private side, I was always involved in my community, trying to ask “How do we open these doors, break down these barriers?” My father did a great job of doing that, and it took him to politics. My grandfather was that way too.
Now that I’m here, there’s a sensitivity to it. I know that I can do something about it, or I could be home complaining about it. Is it easy every day? No. Is it fun every day? No. But it’s satisfying as hell.
According to Frank, KCATA is meeting and exceeding new bus driver hiring goals. One of the first steps to improving service reliability.
Highline: Five to ten years from now, what’s the headline in the newspaper about the ATA?
FWIII: It will be about leadership being the best we’ve ever had. We’ve had a killer NFL Draft. They’ve got great service. They did rail. They did development, and helped put on an amazing World Cup that made the city look great.
Highline: Let’s talk Transit Oriented Communities (TOC), what is the power of those? Why focus there?
FWIII: I heard TOC in Seattle and D.C. That was coming from the federal side. The biggest thing is because if done right, you can rebuild an entire ecosystem using transit. The East Side, for example, has been hollowed out for 70 years, and by using federal money and the tools we have, you can re-densify a whole section of the city. Right now, half of our city doesn’t work.
TOC brings safety. It brings people together. It brings creativity, culture, equity, and access. The city was built for this stuff. That’s why I always use the example of the body, if the blood doesn’t flow right, the body doesn’t work right. If transportation doesn’t flow right, your city doesn’t work right. Our city has a blockage right now because it is not a connected system. It’s trying to exclude people. It’s not stitched together right, so we have to fix it so that the city flows right.
Highline: Is there anything outside of Kansas City that you’re looking to bring or tweak or borrow?
FWIII: Light Rail is one. Infrastructure. We can build sidewalks, roads, and bridges. I want to go more to the innovative side, autonomous vehicles, and technology. There are agencies that are doing that very well at a high level.