In an effort to buy time to find funding for a permanent replacement for the Buck O’Neil Bridge, the Missouri Department of Transportation and Kansas City have tentatively agreed to a short-term repair project.
The $6 million cost-sharing agreement, which would repair only the most urgent problems, would allow work to begin in late spring or early summer and would take five to six months to complete.
The work won’t completely shut down the bridge — two lanes of traffic headed north out of downtown will likely remain open. Drivers headed south into downtown, however, may have to use the Heart of America or Bond bridge to the east or the U.S. 69 River Bridge to the west.
The aging Buck O’Neil Bridge, which carries U.S. 169 over the Missouri River near the Wheeler Downtown Airport, is a key connection between the Northland and downtown Kansas City.
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Around 40,000 vehicles a day cross the bridge. A detailed examination of the structure prompted MoDOT to press earlier this year for a $51 million major overhaul starting in 2019.
That plan would have required the bridge to be closed for two years, and would have left it essentially the same, with no room for improvements like pedestrian walkways.
Kansas City leaders argued against that plan.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James has said closing the bridge for two years is “the worst thing that could happen,” as in addition to causing problems for commuters, it would cause delays for firefighters and other emergency crews.
Brian Kidwell, the Kansas City district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said the new agreement allows crews to make critical repairs to fix the “worst of the worst.”
While repairs are made, experts will also study a potential replacement for the 61-year-old bridge, formerly known as the Broadway Bridge.
Kansas City leaders and visionary thinkers champion an entirely new bridge that would be built alongside the existing one, which would remain open during construction. The cost, however, is a sticking point.
“We can’t afford a $200 million great, beautiful project,” Kidwell said. “We just don’t have the resources.”
MoDOT has offered up to $100 million in matching funds if Kansas City can secure the rest. The state, however, hasn’t identified where its match is coming from. Kansas City leaders recently requested $40 million in federal funds to help with the costs.
That has some cities calling the request unfair, saying it would soak up most, if not all, of the federal surface transportation program funds that the Missouri side of the metro region would receive for a two-year period.
The hope is that no additional repairs will be needed while funding is secured for the new bridge.
“We are doing that to buy ourselves a little bit of time so we can actually build the desired (bridge),” Kidwell said.