The state’s highway engineers admit there’s really nothing to like about their new plan to close and rehab downtown’s Buck O’Neil Bridge.
“It’s not sexy,” said Brian Kidwell, assistant district engineer at the Missouri Department of Transportation. “It’s not fun.”
No one is happy that a detailed examination of the 61-year-old former Broadway Bridge has prompted MoDOT to begin pressing for $40 million in state funds for heavy repairs that could shut the bridge down for more than 18 months beginning in 2019.
Cries of alarm are sounding among Kansas City leaders and visionary thinkers who had just embarked on a more audacious plans — an entirely new bridge.
Think of MoDOT’s unpopular idea “as Plan B,” Kidwell said. “This is not an ultimatum.”
But the state’s message to everyone championing other ideas is this: The aging bridge may not wait for a glamorous Plan A, which contains futuristic visions for a modern bridge and the entire North Loop.
“The existing bridge is telling us we need to accelerate,” Kidwell said. “Gravity and corrosion are forcing our hand.”
Less than a month ago — Feb. 23 — a regional study group coordinated by the Mid-America Regional Council launched a broad-visioning think tank to consider wide-ranging ideas for a new bridge and the North Loop of Interstate 70.
More than 150 people met with the notion they had time to think big.
The expectation was that the group would arrive at four options by sometime in early 2018 and turn them over for environmental impact studies.
They talked of what communities on all sides would look like decades ahead — downtown surging as a residential community, the Northland continuing to grow, imagining elegant ways to transport people north and south, and east and west into Wyandotte County.
For the first time in the two decades that he has been part of transportation studies at MARC, director of transportation Ron Achelpohl said planners are considering a world of self-driving, automated cars.
They’re thinking beauty. Talking of being bicycle and pedestrian friendly, blending neighborhoods.
To do anything less — to simply repair an old bridge — “would be a shame,” said John Fairfield, a co-chairman of the Downtown Council of Kansas City’s Infrastructure Committee and a former city councilman.
“It would not be good for the economic development of the city,” Fairfield said. “We don’t want a Band-Aid…we want something iconic.”
Nor are city leaders ready to give in to the idea that the bridge has to close for as long as MoDOT has warned. More than 40,000 vehicles a day are using the bridge.
Kansas City engineers and planners met with MoDOT recently hoping to speed a search for options.
“We’re trying to do something collaborative,” City Manager Troy Schulte said. “We want to avoid closure of the bridge if we can.”
Here’s the big problem:
While MoDOT has a path through the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission to pursue the $40 million it needs for repairs, all other ideas right now have zero dollars.
The MARC-led study group may have to shift its thinking, Achelpohl said, and move more quickly and boldly. Their best chance to bring in the millions more dollars needed for a grander plan is to come up with “a compelling solution,” he said.
It happened for the Kit Bond Bridge.
For some $245 million, the old Paseo Bridge came down and the towering cable suspension bridge rose up to carry the 100,000 vehicles on Interstate 29 to and from the city.
That project got a $50 million boost from earmarked federal funds and the state legislature issued bond financing to support that and other projects. Numerous business and community entities got behind the idea of a dramatic bridge. This was 2007 — just ahead of the economic recession.
The timing is hard for the Buck O’Neil Bridge. Depending on what ideas come forward, the planners can pursue discretionary, competitive federal funds through programs such as TIGER or FASTLANE grants, Achelpohl said.
Public-private partnerships and intergovernmental partnerships could come into play.
There is also President Donald Trump’s promise of a $1 trillion national infrastructure spending plan — but it is too much of a long-shot, planners said, to expect Trump funds to emerge in time or that the bridge project would receive any of it.
MoDOT is open to any ideas that could avoid a long closure of the bridge, but the design of the structure makes it hard, Kidwell said.
The Buck O’Neil Bridge is “fracture-critical,” he said, meaning that its steel truss and deck design rests on critical points that put the entire bridge at risk when portions are taken apart for repairs. Working on a portion of the bridge most often would require closing the entire bridge.
The portions of the bridge that approach the more-recognizable three arches are actually in the most need of repair, he said.
MoDOT may have some flexibility if a grander plan with funding emerges to perhaps push the work back to 2020, he said, though the state would intensify testing and monitoring to make sure the bridge remains safe.
“Right now the bridge is safe,” he said. “The last thing we want is any uncertainty and any danger for the public. We’re not going to wait for something to break to close it.”