Government & Politics

Driving nightmares spur Kansas City plea for taxpayers’ help undoing backlog of road repairs

Dangerous intersection concerns neighborhood residents

Russ Saltzman a resident of The Coves neighborhood in Kansas City is very concerned about the traffic flow complicated by the speed of vehicles and the lack of a clear sight due to steep hill at the corner of NW 79th Street and Green Hills Road. S
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Russ Saltzman a resident of The Coves neighborhood in Kansas City is very concerned about the traffic flow complicated by the speed of vehicles and the lack of a clear sight due to steep hill at the corner of NW 79th Street and Green Hills Road. S

Any number of roads in Kansas City will drop you into a driving nightmare.

Pavement narrows. Shoulders crumble. Or they take dangerous curves, or fill with overwhelming traffic.

The city wants to fix such roads, and lists dozens of them in a public resolution asking voters on April 4 to approve a series of general obligation bonds.

The road and bridge projects are scattered across all six City Council districts, representing some $450 million worth of work. That’s the majority of the total $800 million in bonds the city is seeking. The rest would address sidewalks, flood control and public buildings.

Waukomis Drive leads to one of those nightmares — Green Hills Road.

If you were lost, you’d think this two-laner heading north off of Interstate 29 was winding you into the country — passing a miniature railroad park and the First Baptist Church with “Jesus Saves” spelled in white bricks over its door.

But beyond the ridges and rushing tree lines, you might notice the gathering rooftops of subdivisions, tethered like swarming branches to the two-lane’s tiny stem.

The road has become a major commuter route. The city’s efforts to modernize it show up for a stretch as it becomes Green Hills Road. But north of 76th Terrace, the new medians and turn lanes end and the old crumbling shoulder and ditches choke the road again.

It all rises to a harrowing peak at 79th Street, where hills obscure the view at an intersection linked to two large apartment complexes and the Coves subdivision and its 480 homes.

“Where I come from, a two-lane road is a nice country drive on a Sunday afternoon,” said Kathy Thomas, who lives on Green Hills Road just north of 79th.

But this one brings a steady assault of vehicles at 40 and even 50 mph rushing past motorists cued up to turn onto what is definitely not a country road anymore.

Coves resident Russ Saltzman approaches it “like the chipmunk aiming at the acorn,” he said. “You do it as fast as you can and hope you don’t get hit.”

Know this, say both City Engineer Jeff Martin and City Manager Troy Schulte: The city will keep scraping at resources to make over roads like this one, whether voters approve the bond issues or not.

The same goes for other pressing projects like the dangerous two-lane Lee’s Summit Road with the curves at Hardin Road where motorists have died, and the failing, aging stretch of 63rd Street between Prospect and Troost avenues.

But Mayor Sly James and the City Council believe the city has fallen too far behind over the past several decades to dig its way out without the relief that general obligation bonds and a supporting property tax increase would provide.

“We have only two options,” James recently told The Star’s editorial board. “We can fix it or watch it crumble.”

“It’s easy to say, ‘Pay for it a different way,’ ” James added. “But it’s just not that easy.”

The city’s backlog of major repairs exceeds $750 million, Schulte said, so it’s not easy limiting the resolution with work amounting roughly to the $450 million the bonds would provide.

Reconstruction of 23rd Street east of Prospect Avenue is on the list. So is reconstruction of 39th Street west of Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard. Briarcliff Parkway east of North Oak Trafficway is there. Blue River Road, with landslide problems south of 87th Street, is there too.

Kansas City is hardly alone among cities burdened with aging infrastructure, nor is it alone in wrestling with options and the politics of taxes, bond issues and debt.

A shared pain

On Election Day in November, voters across the nation decided on 436 transportation-related ballot measures totaling $250 billion, according to the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington.

More than 70 percent of them passed.

“The public is generally good at picking out what are good investments and what are not,” said Eno President and CEO Robert Puente. “The public is willing to invest, and that’s in red states and blue states and everything in between.”

What to make of Kansas City’s bid?

Many of those successful issues in the fall across America were in high-growth cities of the West and Southwest that were building new transit and infrastructure, Puente said. Kansas City is in a wave of cities having to make the harder pitch for repairing existing roads, bridges and highways.

Cities like Chicago and Boston in the Midwest and Northeast already went through this, he said, while middle-tier cities like Kansas City, Washington and San Francisco are now deep in those past-due, less-appealing projects.

“You can’t cut a ribbon in front of them,” Puente said.

The Citizens for Responsible Government in Kansas City and its spokesman, Dan Coffey, have long insisted the city should be focusing on its tired infrastructure needs rather than new projects such as the streetcar. But Coffey says the city, in the way it would increase property taxes, is putting too much burden and risk on homeowners.

The tax would add an estimated $8 a year in incremental annual increases on the owner of a $140,000 home and $15,000 car, peaking at around a $160 annual increase. That’s a total nearing $2,000 over 20 years.

In addition to the $450 million for roads and bridges, the bonds would provide $150 million for sidewalks, another $150 million for flood control, and $50 million for a new animal shelter and public building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Several budget forces compel the city’s decision to seek approval for the series of bonds, Schulte said.

The city’s general budget, which now devotes 76 percent to police and fire, is “cut to the bone” for other services, he said.

Adding to the city’s sale tax is not an option, he said, because it needs to preserve sales tax room as a contingency if the city were to lose the ability to assess its 1 percent earnings tax.

Special obligation bonds that are paid out of the city’s budget were rejected as an option because each year a new City Council would have to reapprove the payments, which would add too much risk, he said.

The city’s $750 million backlog would grow to $1.2 billion by 2027 if the work continues to be neglected, he said. The best way out, he said, is the dedicated revenue of a property tax increase to support a series of 20-year general obligation bonds.

The general obligation bond “was the only way to build a big enough program,” Schulte said.

Here’s how Kansas City got to this point with its roads, Martin said.

The city has more than 6,500 miles of roads, and the city engineer says it would take roughly $45 million every year to keep up with resurfacing, maintenance and repairs.

The city has been budgeting just over $10 million each year, paid by a motor fuel tax and some revenue from the city’s 1/4 -cent capital improvements sales tax. That amount supports the resurfacing and treatment of about 170 miles of roadway — well below the 540 miles Martin said the city needs to resurface and treat annually to keep ahead of deteriorating roads.

The untended wear and tear speeds up the need for reconstruction, which adds to the constant demand to widen or improve roads, or construct new.

The city can compete for Federal Highway Administration grants, as it did in earning $2 million to make improvements in Waldo at the intersection of 75th Street and Wornall Road.

Community interests can also press the city for a share of the highly competitive dollars distributed by the Public Improvements Advisory Committee out of the city’s capital budget. But of the $212 million PIAC recommended citywide and in districts for the current fiscal year, less than $18 million went to road repair and resurfacing requests.

Communities are constantly scouring for these and other resources, said City Councilman Dan Fowler, who knows of the Green Hills Road drama not just as the district representative but as a former resident of one of the road’s apartment complexes.

He hadn’t lived there long before he was stirred by the smash of a vehicle into a tree and the sight of the fire he could see from his window.

Many of the grant-funded sources the city pursues — if they can be gotten at all — require matching funds, he said. Whatever happens in April, the pursuit would carry on for Green Hills Road and other most-urgent projects.

“Without the bonds,” he said, “it is a long, long process.”

A road fit for a parade

Here’s what a grandly remade street can do, says Karyn Brooke.

The Martin City neighborhood’s annual parade in south Kansas City on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day will come rolling down 135th Street, right outside of her store, Sidelines Custom Floral Designs.

No more, if it has rained, will spectators dodge the poorly drained puddles that used to collect on the street’s curb-less, crumbly shoulder.

Kids will be sitting on new curbs. Spectators will watch from 135th’s sidewalks and fresh landscaping — probably in bright sunshine, the way things are going.

“We’re seeing the community we always dreamed of,” she said.

It took several years. The Martin City Community Improvement District pushed the city for PIAC dollars, ultimately getting some $2.7 million from PIAC and previous city bond funding. And the Community Improvement District merchants raised $750,000 on their own to further beautify the work.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Martin City has gained a dozen new businesses and seen at least 10 existing businesses expand since 2014, said the Community Improvement District’s executive director, Missy Wilson.

However, Holmes Road, the major artery that carries people through south Kansas City, now has a lot in common with Green Hills Road as it approaches Martin City — a sometimes two-lane road carrying a heavy load of traffic.

The city knows. It’s on the list.

Proposed road and bridge projects for Kansas City’s April 4 bond issue election:

103rd Street Bridge over Indian Creek (east of State Line Road)

107th Street from Blue Ridge to James A. Reed

12th Street Bridge over the Big Blue River (between Crystal and I-435 outer road)

135th Street — Wornall to Missouri 150

20th Street Improvements

Admiral Boulevard Improvements

23rd Street Reconstruction from Prospect to Indiana

27th Street Reconstruction from Troost Ave. to Prospect Ave.

31st/Linwood/Van Brunt Intersection

39th Street Reconstruction from Elmwood to Emanuel Cleaver II Blvd.

43rd Street and Pittman Road Bridge (and intersection improvements)

63rd Street Reconstruction from Prospect to Troost

75th Street — Swope Industrial District

Benton Blvd. Bridge over Brush Creek

Blue River Road Landslide Issues — 87th Street to Red Bridge Road

Briarcliff Parkway/NE 42nd Street - North Oak Trafficway to Davidson

Broadway/West Pennway Bridge over KCTRR

Brookside Plaza Street Improvements

Byrams Ford Bridge over Round Grove Creek (between Raytown Road and 47th Terrace)

Cleveland Bridge over Brush Creek

Front Street from I-35 to I-435 (city obligation)

Frost Road Bridge

Gillham Road Corridor Improvements

Grand Boulevard from 14th to 27th Street

Gregory Boulevard — Eastern Avenue to Blue Ridge Boulevard

Hillcrest Road Bridge (200 feet south of Oldham)

Holmes Road Bridge over Indian Creek Rehab (north of 100th Terrace)

Holmes Road Improvements — Minor Drive to 137th Street

J.C. Nichols Parkway Bridge over Brush Creek

Lee’s Summit Road from Anderson Drive to Lakewood Blvd. (Hardin Curves)

Lee’s Summit Road from Lakewood Blvd. to Gregory

Line Creek Parkway — N.W. 62nd Street to N.W. 68th Street

Line Creek Parkway from N.W. 68th Street to N.W. 72nd Street

Maplewoods Parkway from Missouri 1 to North Antioch

Meyer Blvd. from Wornall to Baltimore

N. Antioch Road Bridge over small creek

N. Brighton — N. Pleasant Valley Road to N.E. 72nd Street

N. Coventry from N.W. 68th Street to N.W. 76th Street

N. Green Hills Road from N.W. 78th Street to Barry Road

N. Green Hills Road from N.W. Old Tiffany Springs Road to N.W. 108th Street

N. Hampton Road Bridge (just south of N.W. Tiffany Park Road)

N. Woodland/Maplewoods Parkway from Shoal Creek Parkway to Cookingham

N.E. 45th Street Bridge

N.E. 79th Street from North Oak to Oak Park High School/Troost

N.E. Industrial Trafficway Bridge and Street Improvements Cherry to Nicholson

N.E. Parvin Road Improvements from N.E. Davidson to N. Brighton

N.E. Pleasant Valley Road from N. Brighton to N. Searcy Creek Pkwy.

North Oak Trafficway Reconstruction

N.W. 108th Street/Shoal Creek Pkwy. from Cosby to Platte Purchase

N.W. 108th Street Single Lane Bridge Replacement

N.W. Tiffany Park Drive Bridge (west of Hampton Road)

Old Bannister Road over Big Blue River and over Blue River Road (2 bridges)

Oldham Road Bridge 500 feet south of KCSRR

Paseo Gateway (Paseo Blvd. and Independence Ave.)

Prospect MAX

Red Bridge Road from Blue River Road to Grandview Road

Red Bridge Road Reconstruction from Holmes Road to Wornall Road

Roanoke Pkwy. Bridge over Brush Creek Deck Rehab

Rockhill Road Improvements

Searcy Creek Pkwy. from N.E. 48th Street to Maple Park Middle School

West Pennway Improvements to Summit Street intersection

Westport Triangle Improvements

Wornall Road Reconstruction from 63rd Street to 79th Street

Wornall Road Reconstruction from 85th Street to 89th Street