Downtown Kansas City road work is almost done

For the tens of thousands of commuters who think this year’s highway bridge and ramp construction into downtown has been a continuing nightmare, imagine living right next to it.

For months, Sean O’Byrne and his family have watched and heard the construction from their 130-year-old Victorian home overlooking I-35 from the West Side. Some nights, crews were jack-hammering until 2 a.m.

“Oh yeah, we heard it,” O’Byrne says.

But he and all the other residents, businesses and commuters affected by the construction can take heart. The work is coming to an end. Weather-permitting, it should be finished the week of Dec. 16.

“The sooner the better,” cheered Mark Bechtel, who rides the JO bus daily from south Overland Park to his job with DST downtown. Bechtel said he’s gotten somewhat used to the construction-related traffic jams, detours and delays but will be glad when it’s all over.

Missouri Department of Transportation officials know the project has been a big hassle since it started in April.

“It was very unpleasant,” concedes MoDOT spokesman Steve Porter.

For people coming from Johnson County or other locations south of downtown, “I-35 has generally been your way of getting in, one way or the other,” he said.

But it actually could have been worse. The work to redeck I-35 at Southwest Trafficway and Southwest Boulevard could have dragged out for two or three years, says MoDOT assistant district engineer Brian Kidwell. That was the initial contractor time estimate.

“We said we can’t stand to have that out there for two years. We can’t take it through the winter,” Kidwell said.

So crews worked two 10-hour shifts, seven days per week for 40 weeks. Accelerating the schedule with those extra crews added millions to the original $40 million budget estimate, but it was worth it to get the work done more quickly, Kidwell said.

In all, MoDOT rehabilitated, replaced or redecked 18 bridges in or just outside the Downtown Loop, a few of which hadn’t been touched for decades. It was a complex, carefully orchestrated project that cost about $48 million, but it came in reasonably on time, which was a big relief to both Porter and Kidwell. Key contractors were Clarkson Construction, Comanche Construction and Pyramid Contractors.

Some people have questioned why all the work was done at so many locations, all in one season. Porter said that once one lane is closed, the bottleneck affects all traffic for miles, so phasing in the work more slowly would be more inefficient and would just drag out the agony.

The work affected probably the metro area’s most congested parts of town, with average daily traffic of 380,000 vehicles through the loop, Porter said.

The most profound impact was on I-35 southwest of downtown, which carries an average of 106,000 vehicles daily one-way. Crews redecked I-35 over Southwest Boulevard to 20th Street, which was built in 1947 and hadn’t been re-decked since. Other work included replacing the 12th Street Bridge and ramps at I-35.

At the same time, Kansas City decided to rebuild the Main Street bridge over I-670. That bridge will reopen Friday afternoon.

Many of the other bridges and ramps were finished this fall. The I-35 bridge at Admiral Boulevard should be finished in about a week, and the work on I-35 southwest of downtown during the week of Dec. 16. Crews had hoped to be done earlier but the recent winter cold snap hasn’t helped.

This year’s project also caps about seven years worth of work downtown that totalled more than $70 million. The Truman, Oak and Locust Street bridges over I-70 were upgraded in 2007 and Broadway over I-670 was improved in 2011.

Porter says this type of work is the wave of the future for MoDOT. It’s not expanding the system or adding capacity, just maintaining what it already has. That’s all they can afford, and downtown is so dense that there’s not much room to add more lanes.

While the work has not added extra lanes, it has improved the shoulders and safety on the roads while extending the life of the key bridges another 40 years, Kidwell said. Expansion joints on I-35 that would sometimes fly up and require emergency repairs during rush-hour have all been replaced with a new design.

Not only is it safer, it’s also a lot quieter, without that ker-thump, ker-thump that cars would make over the joints. O’Byrne said that’s a big relief for nearby residents.

“They’ve gotten rid of all that,” he said. “The expansion joints no longer make noise.”

O’Byrne had nothing but praise for MoDOT in working with the West Side neighborhood to limit the noise and inconvenience from the construction.

As for motorists, Clara Miller said the traffic delays were a hassle but she figured it would be worth it.

“I would say I’m understanding of the necessary frustration that we have to go through, to make a safer system,” said Miller, who drives in every day from Olathe to her job downtown,.

MoDOT has other big maintenance projects on tap for next year, but nothing that will affect traffic quite like the downtown work, Porter said.

Among next year’s big impact projects:

•  A $64 million Manchester Bridge replacement project near I-70 and Interstate 435. Construction should begin this winter.

•  An $80 million replacement of the Fairfax and Platte Purchase bridges with one bridge where U.S. 69 goes over the Missouri River. The Kansas Department of Transportation will also contribute $35 million to that project. Construction is expected in late fall.

•  A package of 14 bridges on Interstate 29 and Interstate 635 in the Northland. Construction is expected in the summer.

Even bigger work is planned on the Kansas side:

•  Construction could start on the huge Johnson County Gateway Project at the I-435/I-35 and K-10. The $285 million project –– the largest ever in the Johnson County –– is designed to improve traffic flow and prepare for future growth. This project will carry over into summer 2017.

•  Construction on 118th Street overpass over I-70 in Wyandotte will begin in the spring and end a year later.

•  Bridge replacement and a new interchange configuration at I-435 and Roe Boulevard in Johnson County begins in the spring and finishes late in the year.