Kansas City’s Buck O’Neil bridge is in trouble. It’s a problem that may also be an opportunity.
The familiar triple-arched bridge that spans the Missouri River opened for business more than half a century ago. More than 40,000 cars cross the bridge each day, heading into downtown Kansas City or escaping from it.
Missouri transportation officials do their best to maintain the structure, but it’s nearing the end of its useful life. Kansas City Manager Troy Schulte says the bridge’s condition keeps him up at night.
That has prompted city leaders to think hard about a replacement and about improving the weird tangle of highways and streets on both ends of the structure. A study group, Beyond the Loop, is asking for the public’s help in reimagining the O’Neil bridge and the roadways nearby.
It’s an important task. Kansas City should not only rethink the bridge but should also consider redesigning or eliminating the entire North Loop of Interstate 70 at the same time.
The acres of interstate concrete that surround downtown Kansas City may be one of the area’s most costly mistakes. The loop cuts off downtown from the city in every direction.
The River Market and Columbus Park neighborhoods are isolated to the north. East Side and West Side residents can’t easily link to the center city. To the south, the Crossroads Arts District is separated from the Power & Light District and much of the Bartle Hall-Barney Allis Plaza complex.
Over the years, city officials have offered schemes to rectify the error. Some wanted to cover the South Loop with grass. Others have suggested building a baseball stadium over the highway. Some want to eliminate the loop all together.
The problem is the cost. It would be enormously expensive, not to mention inconvenient, to demolish the South Loop or cover it up.
That’s where the North Loop comes in.
Removing the North Loop also would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and would take years to finish. But it might make more sense if the project could be combined with reconstructing the O’Neil bridge and rebuilding the unacceptably tangled roads nearby.
Abolishing the North Loop also would reconnect the city with its river and with expanding housing options in the River Market. Imagine the North Loop replaced with housing, walkable parks and transit, and you get a sense of what downtown might be.
We must be careful here. The cost, which Missouri would share, could be prohibitive. Replacing the Paseo Bridge nearly a decade ago cost $32 million, and the federal government helped out.
It isn’t clear if the feds would help with this project. There also may be more urgent needs in the area.
And we can’t pay for the destruction of both parts of the interstate loop, north and south. We wouldn’t want to: There must be one thoroughfare through downtown. One side of the loop will always be with us.
But it’s possible the other part could go. Kansas City should continue its study of the North Loop, then compare costs with changes to the South Loop.
At that point residents can compare options and decide how best to reconnect the city with its downtown.