Guest Commentary

We must plan ahead to avoid outgrowing Kansas City’s infrastructure

The city of Kansas City has 6,400 total lane miles of constructed streets and roadways, which is “equivalent to a two-lane road from Boston to San Diego,” as Public Works Department spokesman Sean Demory put it in 2015.
The city of Kansas City has 6,400 total lane miles of constructed streets and roadways, which is “equivalent to a two-lane road from Boston to San Diego,” as Public Works Department spokesman Sean Demory put it in 2015. The Star

Kansas City is poised to become a great city. After peaking nearly 50 years ago, population growth is once again on a healthy upward trend. Our downtown is more vibrant than it’s been for generations. Private reinvestment in Midtown areas like Armour Boulevard and the Troost corridor is exciting to see.

Great things are happening. Still, there is a challenge we need to face: We’ve built a city we can’t afford.

Like most cities in the country, we’ve built more infrastructure in the past 70 years than we can afford to maintain. Highways, bridges, local streets, sidewalks, sewers and water lines are aging fast, and these utilities continue to crumble. Eventually, replacement will be the only option, at which point no one knows where we’ll find the financial resources that will be needed to rebuild what we aren’t currently maintaining.

The city of Kansas City has 6,400 total lane miles of constructed streets and roadways, which is “equivalent to a two-lane road from Boston to San Diego,” as Public Works Department spokesman Sean Demory put it in 2015.

Of these 6,400 lane miles, 4,000 are neighborhood streets and cul-de-sacs. Even using conservative estimates, the replacement value of these streets is in the billions of dollars.

For the 2015-2016 fiscal year, Kansas City budgeted $13 million for street maintenance. At that rate, we are relying on our streets to last hundreds of years. They don’t.

Each resident in Kansas City now has four times as much city to maintain as our predecessors had in 1950. The amount of infrastructure we’ve built per capita is among the highest in the country.

And we continue to make things worse. The average home value in our city generates only a fraction of the tax revenue needed to maintain a new neighborhood. Still, nine out of every 10 homes are built in newer neighborhoods. We continue building new neighborhoods full of homes that don’t create enough value to afford the infrastructure that supports them. Voters’ approval of $800 million in general obligation bonds last year was a positive step forward, but it is far short of what is actually needed.

We can change the course. We can we move away from a pattern of growth that increases our liabilities toward a pattern that builds value. More than that, we can take advantage of our positive momentum and our relative affordability and lead the way forward for other cities.

In January, Gould Evans and the Kansas City Public Library — with support from the Mid-America Regional Council, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the local council of the Urban Land Institute, Newmark Grubb Zimmer and the National Association of Realtors — are presenting a new speaker series called Making a Great City.

The series will begin Jan. 30 at the library’s Plaza Branch with transportation engineer and urban planner Charles Marohn of the Strong Towns organization. He and future speakers will help us understand how cities got to this point and how we can address our infrastructure challenges.

Together, we can become a more productive city — a great city.

Dennis Strait is a landscape architect, architect and the principal in charge of the Kansas City Planning Studio of Gould Evans.

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