The recent alarming report recommending a two-year-closure of the Buck O’Neil Bridge for repairs exposed more than just the dire condition of the bridge.
It also revealed just how far Kansas City and the state drifted apart on the prospect of building a totally new span.
Local planners and the Missouri Department of Transportation haven’t been on the same page on the bridge’s future since the campaign for a three-quarter-cent sales tax for bridges and roads failed in August 2014.
MoDOT, seeing no future funding for a new bridge, last fall commissioned the report from HDR Inc. to inform plans to rehab the structure.
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The urgency in the finished report in March — saying repairs may be needed in 2019 — stunned city and regional planners who had remained committed to more-time-consuming plans for a totally new bridge.
“Timing is everything, including bad timing,” Kansas City Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner said.
“They kind of sprung (the report) on us,” he said. “If this came a year ago, we’d be talking about it in a whole different way.”
Instead, Wagner is authoring a resolution going to the City Council on Thursday to speed the city in the next 60 days to propose regional plans that could fund and design a new bridge.
A complicated search for federal, state, regional and city dollars — which regional planners thought they’d have at least a year to pursue — has to happen now.
The state isn’t opposed to a new bridge, said MoDOT assistant district engineer Brian Kidwell. But it has to proceed with its plans to maintain a deteriorating bridge with the limited state funds available.
“We knew there was not money for a new bridge,” he said. “We never assumed they (the city) would want to partner on a new bridge.”
City officials, including Mayor Sly James, complained that regional planning teams did not know the report was coming and did not learn of it directly from MoDOT.
MoDOT, Kidwell said, intended only to get a detailed analysis to inform its plans to fix the existing bridge.
“We knew it was time to commission a rehab project,” Kidwell said.
Repairing the bridge, according to the report, would cost close to $50 million and necessitate closing the bridge for 18 months to two years.
A new bridge would cost at least $150 million and likely more. It would require a series of environmental studies and other research ahead of construction that would last at least into 2022.
If funding were plentiful, MoDOT would likely be planning for a new bridge. During the failed Amendment 7 campaign, replacing the Kansas City bridge, then named the Broadway Bridge, was on the proposed projects list.
Instead, the state’s budget for roads and bridges continued to tumble, falling from $1.3 billion in 2009 to an estimated $800 million in 2017.
“MoDOT’s funding story has been bleak for a long time,” said Ron Achelpohl, director of transportation and environment at the Mid-America Regional Council, which is coordinating the regional planning project named Beyond the Loop.
Missouri has one of the lower motor fuel taxes in the nation and none of the toll roads used in neighboring states.
The Beyond the Loop project, which held its first public meeting in February, is intended to look at a regional plan that could reimagine the bridge, the North Loop of Interstate 70 and the surrounding transportation, economic and environmental issues.
The planners knew going in that there was no funding sources identified, but that they could provide visionary proposals by early 2018 that could inspire financial commitments.
The thinking by the regional planners, Achelpohl said, was that there would be time to launch the Beyond the Loop study “before (issues with the future of the bridge) got hot again.”
It’s hot now.