A proposal to collect tolls on Kansas City’s Buck O’Neil Bridge should be stopped in its tracks.
The idea surfaced recently, as the city searches for ways to pay for its share of replacing the state-owned bridge. It could cost $200 million or more for a new bridge. Of that, Kansas City might need to provide $100 million.
We’re sympathetic to the city’s plight. By any fair reckoning, the state of Missouri — and, perhaps the federal government —should pay for replacing the structure. It belongs to Missouri, and it’s part of a major thoroughfare through a major American city.
But Missouri has highway and bridge problems from stem to stern and can’t come up with all of the money. That’s why Kansas City is scraping together as much cash as it can.
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Tolls simply aren’t the way to do it.
Kansas Citians of some age will remember when tolls were a fixture on the bridge, then known as the Broadway Bridge. Travelers into or out of downtown had to remember dimes and quarters for every trip, money they plunked into collection baskets in the middle of the structure.
It was an incredible nuisance that snarled traffic in both directions during rush hour, creating routine backups that often stretched deep into downtown.
But the toll system was a social issue, too. Residents north of the river saw the tolls as a barrier to entry to Kansas City. It sent a message: You can’t drive into downtown, or out of it, without paying tribute.
That’s why politicians worked for years to remove the tolls. No other bridge in Kansas City, they pointed out, required tolls for crossing.
The toll booths were taken down in 1991. It was part of what was called the Cleaver Plan, named for the city councilman who later became mayor.
Under the plan, Kansas City borrowed money from future sales tax revenue to make repairs to the bridge. Then Missouri assumed responsibility for it.
The tolls were taken down more than a quarter-century ago.
How, then, to pay the city’s share of improvements?
We continue to think Rep. Sam Graves could work harder to find federal funds for the bridge, which is partially in his district. Graves’ constituents should use progress on bridge funding as a marker for their support.
Don’t forget to call Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, either. It’s possible the Democrat could once again rescue the bridge from the dreaded tolls.
But Kansas City has sources of funds as well. It just passed an $800 million bond issue that could provide some revenue. The city wants to ask voters in April 2018 to renew a one-cent capital improvements sales tax, which yields $70 million annually.
Some of that revenue might be explicitly set aside for the Buck O’Neil Bridge, which is a citywide project under any reasonable definition.
The city might restructure existing debt for savings. General fund savings could be found and used. A transportation district is a possibility.
But we cannot support bringing tolling back to the Buck O’Neil Bridge. Tolls on the bridge are unfair, inconvenient and unnecessary.