Debate over what to do about Kansas City’s deteriorating Buck O’Neil Bridge turned contentious at times Thursday as an anxious City Council wrestled with a looming regional crisis.
The council is considering a resolution that would give the city manager 60 days to work with regional partners and come back with a plan to help the state fund construction of a new bridge.
The fact that it would take at least $150 million — and probably much more — raised alarms among council members, especially since Kansas City voters just approved $800 million in bond issues to address the city’s crumbling infrastructure.
Mayor Sly James opened the council business session emphatically to refute any rumors that the city was preparing to divert city bond issue funds to the state-owned bridge.
Anyone who says that, James said, “is flat-out, no-doubt-about-it wrong.”
But just what the city should do will be a hard debate that has to speed to a resolution.
The Missouri Department of Transportation last month jolted the region when engineers said that a study on the condition of the bridge showed it to be in worse shape than previously thought.
With no funding aligned for a new bridge, MoDOT said it is proceeding with plans to spend $50 million in state funds on a complete rehab of the existing bridge beginning in 2019, with a need to close it down for 18 months to two years.
The resolution proposed by Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner laid out some of the wide-ranging ramifications of such a long closure.
It would affect the commute of some 40,000 vehicles a day, impairing operations of the Wheeler Downtown Airport and multiple surrounding businesses. Children’s Mercy Hospital and the Midwest Transplant Network use the bridge to make connections to critical landings at the airport.
It also notes that rehabbing the bridge leaves many economic and transportation improvements unmet and would abandon the long-range regional planning underway with the Mid-America Regional Council involving the bridge and the Interstate 70 North Loop.
MoDOT isn’t against plans for a new bridge, but it doesn’t believe the bridge can wait for what would be a several-years process of studies and plans — especially without any funding source identified beyond the $50 million the state is planning for the rehab.
Some of the council members aired frustrations that this has been sprung on the city so close to the bond election.
“Why is this the timing?” Councilwoman Alissia Canady asked. “And why are we (the city) taking first position” in pushing for a funding plan?
The council members all were part of the successful April 4 election campaign that Councilwoman Katheryn Shields said promised voters that the city would finally address the city’s crumbling assets.
“This (the bridge) is a state asset,” she said.
The resolution only directs the city manager to work with state, federal and local agencies on a funding plan, Wagner said. It does not suggest any use of bond funds. The council would be approving any plan from the city manager, and several council members made it clear they would resist using the city’s bonds revenue.
The intention is to explore all the choices, Wagner said.
“We either need to decide to move forward as a region,” he said, “or we can stop, let the state do the rehab and walk away, and then that’s the way it will be for the next 60 years.”