The unpleasant prospect of a long-term closing of the Buck O’Neil Bridge, with all the traffic snarls and public safety problems it would create, is prompting Kansas City leaders to make an extraordinary — some other cities say unfair — request.
Kansas City leaders want $40 million in federal funds to help with the $200 million cost to replace the bridge, which carries 44,000 drivers a day across the Missouri River and links the Northland with downtown.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte sent a letter making the request to the Mid-America Regional Council, which is responsible for directing federal funds through the Surface Transportation Program to various projects in the metro region.
Trouble is, for cities like Grandview, Kansas City’s request seeks to soak up most, if not all, the surface transportation program funds that the Missouri side of the metro region would get for a two-year period.
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In the normal course of awarding those funds, MARC would solicit project funding requests in January and send out portions of the allocation — now estimated at $30 million to $37 million for the next funding cycle — to multiple projects.
Other cities worry Kansas City could get all the allocation at once, foreclosing their opportunity to even make an attempt at getting their own funds.
“Not even having the chance is not fair or appropriate,” said Dennis Randolph, public works director for Grandview.
Randolph had planned to request $5 million in surface transportation program funds from MARC when it started accepting requests for project funding.
Grandview wants to turn one-way frontage streets along Interstate 49 into two-way streets. The one-way traffic, the result of a Missouri Department of Transportation project in the 1980s, has rendered Grandview’s frontage roads difficult to navigate for retail shoppers.
“We lost, over the years, 60 retail business,” Randolph said. “The biggest complaint from those retailers and existing retailers is it's very difficult to get from one side of the expressway to the other.”
Kansas City leaders, however, are pressing the case for fixing the Buck O’Neil Bridge situation as soon as possible. James’ and Schulte’s letter to MARC painted the situation in stark terms.
“On its face, it can be surmised that a sustained closure of this bridge would have irreversible and devastating life-safety and economic impacts to the Kansas City region,” the letter warns.
MoDOT earlier this year told Kansas City officials that the bridge was in deteriorating shape. There had been discussions of making repairs to the bridge starting in 2019, but the proposed method would have required closing the bridge for two years.
That’s too long to wait for Kansas City leaders.
James said on Tuesday “having that bridge closed for two years is the worst thing that could happen.”
He added that a prolonged closing could create problems for Children’s Mercy, for fire fighters, for people who work at the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport, which includes the advertising firm VML. In addition, all the bridge’s traffic load would shift to the Heart of America Bridge and the Bond Bridge.
Replacing the Buck O’Neil Bridge without extensive closures would cost $200 million. And no one is sure where the money would come from.
The Missouri Department of Transportation has offered up to $100 million in matching funds if Kansas City can secure the rest.
MoDOT owns the Buck O’Neil Bridge, and has since the toll roads were removed from the bridge in 1991.
But has MoDOT, a state agency with well-publicized budget problems, identified where the $100 million match is coming from?
“We have not,” said Susan Barry, assistant district manager for MoDOT.
But Kansas City also isn’t sure where its $100 million would come from, even if it had its $40 million request in hand.
Barry was part of a Tuesday morning meeting at MARC where Kansas City’s $40 million request was discussed.
Dena Mezger, public works director for Lee’s Summit, said Kansas City officials at the meeting allowed for the possibility of splitting up its request over more than one funding cycle — each funding cycle lasts two years.
“That certainly is a little more palatable,” Mezger said.
Still, surrounding communities have concerns about how it could impact their transportation projects.
“It's a big ask,” said Ron Achelpohl, director of transportation and environment at MARC. “It would compete with other needs in the region. There would be a number of jurisdictions that will have legitimate concerns.”
No decisions were made at Tueday’s meeting of MARC’s Total Transportation Policy Committee, other than to continue conversations at future committee meetings.
Barry said Kansas City’s request may not mean that it gets the full $40 million funding.
“This committee could decide they still want to put a big chunk toward the Buck O’Neil Bridge, but they want to leave some available for other municiaplities,” she said. “It's not all or nothing. There can be a sliding scale.”