Government & Politics

KC, still $60 million short on new Buck O’Neil Bridge, looks harder at tolls, grants

In a government finance version of shaking the piggy bank, Kansas City leaders are looking at where they can find the remaining $60 million needed to fund the replacement of the deteriorating Buck O’Neil Bridge.

Federal grants are a promising but unpredictable route that Kansas City is exploring. Adding tolls — anywhere between 75 cents to $1.75 per trip across the bridge — could make money but wouldn’t be publicly or politically popular.

Those options were discussed during a Wednesday meeting of the Kansas City Finance & Governance Committee.

So far, Kansas City has identified $140 million in funding toward the $200 million cost of replacing the bridge without shutting down what is one of the major connectors between the Northland and downtown. Misssouri Department of Transportation officials earlier this year discovered that the bridge is in worse shape than thought.

Kansas City will get $40 million from a federal Surface Transportation Fund, which grants money to the Mid-America Regional Council every two years to then divvy up to cities and counties in the region that apply. MARC will give Kansas City $40 million of the about $75 million that will be available over the next four years, a decision that still leaves some money available for other cities like Grandview and Gladstone.

David Slater, Pleasant Valley mayor, called the $40 million from MARC to Kansas City a move that supports regional cooperation and a measure to avoid a cheaper fix to the Buck O’Neil Bridge that would require closing it during construction.

“To shut that bridge down for two years is ridiculous,” Slater said.

The Missouri Department of Transportation has pledged another $100 million.

Kansas City applied for grants from to federal programs in hopes of landing the remaining $60 million.

Kansas City is seeking $25 million from Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) and $60 million from Infrastructure For Rebuilding America (INFRA), both grant programs under the U.S. Department of Transportation.

But both grant programs are competitive with cities and states all over the country vying for limited funds. TIGER has $500 million available, and INFRA has $1.5 billion. As an example of the competitiveness for these grants, Kansas City officials asked the Missouri Department of Transportation to sponsor one of their grants, but the agency declined because it wanted its own grant for a Interstate 70 project it’s considering.

“It highlights the competition we will have,” said Matt Roney, partner and president of Kit Bond Strategies, a lobbying firm representing Kansas City.

If the grants don’t come to pass, then what?

Tolling vehicles traveling on the Buck O’Neil Bridge is an option under some consideration.

Ron Achelpohl, director of transportation for MARC, told the Finance & Governance Committee that tolls could raise $63 million to $101 million.

But there’s drawbacks to tolling the Buck O’Neil Bridge. For one thing, people could easily take other routes to skip the toll; the nearby Heart of America and Kit Bond bridges are obvious examples. Achelpohl said an analysis predicts 35 percent to 70 percent of drivers would take a different route.

There would also be a one- to two-year study of the toll that’s required, and the state is not funding toll studies these days.

Achelpohl said that tolls probably would not be a “first option” to fund the project, an assessment shared by Kansas City Councilwoman Jolie Justus.

Steve Vockrodt: 816-234-4277, @st_vockrodt