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Funding Shortfall Could Close Aging Broadway Bridge

Julie Denesha
The Kansas City skyline is framed by the Broadway Bridge. The triple arch bridge was built in 1955, and it may have to close after this week's inspection.

It's a big week for the Broadway Bridge – expect lane closures and delays as inspectors check the safety of the 60-year-old structure.

“The paint looks OK on Broadway, but when you really get in your bucket truck and you hang over the edge and start looking underneath, there is a lot of deterioration, a lot of areas — they call it section loss,” says Brian Kidwell, assistant Kansas City district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Two years ago, inspectors found problems — big ones — that necessitated closing the bridge for repairs.

If that happens again, there might not be money to fix the Broadway Bridge.

“It’s a major route for downtown Kansas City,” says Kidwell, “but it’s not on our primary system.”

Uncertainty ahead 

Last week, I went to the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport to watch cars creep across the Broadway Bridge.

The more traffic slows, the more you see cars doing this: exiting at the airport, zipping along Richards Road and merging back onto U.S. Route 169 right before the bridge. By 8 a.m., it’s brake lights as far as you can see.

Closing this route would have a huge impact on Northland commuters and slow traffic on other bridges. But Broadway's inspection  – federal law requires bridges get checked every two years – comes at a particularly bad time for Missouri.

Next summer, funding for roads will drop to $325 million, a fraction of the more than $2 billion MoDOT has budgeted each of the past five years. As local spending on roads decreases, Missouri misses out on a 4-for-1 federal match of highway dollars. Kidwell says Missouri will fall at least $180 million short of what takes to maintain the current transportation system.

The way Kidwell sees it, our grandparents were smart. They invested in federal highways, and we got a system of roads and bridges that lasted for decades. Now those structures are reaching the end of their useful lives.

“So the entire system is wearing out at the same time,” Kidwell says.

That’s why the Missouri Highway Commission just implemented a two-tier system for the state’s roads. The primary system – about 8,000 miles of road – will be maintained. But another 26,000 miles of supplementary roads could be allowed to deteriorate.

Most of the region’s river bridges made the first list. But not Broadway.

“If we find significant deterioration where our inspectors think it’s necessary to close it until it’s repaired, we’re going to have a real tough conversation. Current policy says we can’t spend construction money on the Broadway Bridge,” Kidwell says.

A bad year for Kansas City bridges

Rick Kingery is driving north on Missouri Route 291 when I ask him if bridge inspectors have favorite bridges.

“Do we have favorites?” says Kingery, who works for the Missouri Department of Transportation. “I’d say we probably have least favorites.”

“Just because they’re hard to inspect, or because they’re hard to maintain?”

“Well, hard to inspect and hard to maintain,” says Kingery. “And you know that every time you go there, there’s going to be something wrong.”

We get out of Kingery’s truck at riverbank LaBenite Park in eastern Jackson County. Usually, traffic would be zipping overhead on northbound 291. But MoDOT closed the 66-year-old bridge last month for emergency repairs, forcing all of the traffic onto the newer southbound bridge.

After I don my safety vest and hard hat, Kingery takes me under the bridge.

“Right here,” he says, pointing. “This area here, you can see the area where we made the first repair.”

The problem is the gusset plates, thick sheets of steel that are used to connect beams and girders to the bridge’s trusses. Kingery tells me MoDOT doesn’t build bridges like this anymore.

“I would say a deck truss is an antiquated model,” he says.

Still, MoDOT must maintain five older river bridges here in the metro. I ask Kingery, “Are these old bridges safe?”

“If it wasn’t safe, we would close it,” Kingery says.

In fact, there’s been a string of bridge closures recently. In addition to the 291 bridge, MoDOT had to close to the eastbound I-70 to I-35 ramp in April. That’s not over a river, but I ask Kingery if he’s worried closures will color the public’s perception of safety, especially after the high-profile I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota.

Credit Missouri Department of Transportation
Rusted gusset plates triggered the closure of the northbound Missouri Route 291 bridge in May. It should reopen later this month.

“(The) Minnesota collapse was a gusset plate problem,” Kingery says, tapping a stack of photos of the 291 bridge. “This is what failed, the gusset plate.”

When the I-35 bridge went crashing into the Mississippi River in 2007, Kingery says every similar bridge here in Missouri was inspected within the week. Safety is a priority, so MoDOT will inspect older bridges more frequently than the federal minimum.

It means MoDOT is keenly aware of the challenges of maintaining old bridges.

But like Kidwell, Kingery is also worried about the outcome of the Broadway Bridge inspection.

“The bad part about Broadway is it’s the whole bridge,” Kingery says. “It’s every location. You know, we were talking about 291 earlier, we had 13 locations. Broadway is spread out.”

Here’s how to read our map

Maintenance: In cases where the Missouri River is also the state line, Missouri and Kansas divvy up responsibility for maintaining bridges. “By maintaining I mean the routine maintenance and who takes the lead for contract repairs,” writes Kansas Department of Transportation’s Kimberly Qualls in an email. “The cost of the contract repairs are shared equally between KDOT and MoDOT.”

Year built: But wait, you say. Didn’t the (new) Chouteau Bridge open in 2002? Sure did. But the lifespan of a bridge starts when it’s built, not when it’s opened. That’s because the construction materials are exposed to the elements – in this case, corrosive river water – long before they carry traffic.

Status: MoDOT actually gives each bridge three ratings – one each for the deck, the substructure and the superstructure – on a scale of 1-10. Scoring a four or lower in any one category will land a bridge on the department’s critical list. As such, we’ve listed just one number, the lowest rating, for each bridge. It’s worth noting bridges are inspected continuously, and we’ve listed the rating as of June 2015.

This look at the Missouri River is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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