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Tough Decisions Ahead As Kansas City Grapples Over Future Of Buck O'Neil Bridge

Julie Denesha
The Buck O'Neil Bridge, built in the 1950's is nearing the end of its useful life — but MoDOT doesn't have the money to replace it. Now Kansas City has to decide what do do about the bridge, which thousands of Kansas Citians use for their daily commute. ";

When it comes to the Buck O’Neil Bridge (formerly known as the Broadway Bridge,) Kansas City is in a tough spot.

More than 50,000 people drive across the bridge each day, according to The Mid-America Regional Council, whose Beyond The Loop project is studying the bridge and its surrounding area.  

The 60-year-old bridge is in bad condition — with gaps in its joints, rust along its underside, and erosion along the floor of the river around the bridge's piers.

But the cash-strapped Missouri Department of Transportation can only cough up $50 million — only enough to rehabilitate the bridge and extend its life for 35 years.

Addressing the Kansas City Council on Thursday, innovation engineer Wes Minder explained that would make it safer, but doesn’t fix other issues.

"So we'd continue to have multiple cars sitting on the bridge in the morning, creating unnecessary emissions, impacts to the environment there," Minder says. 

Plus, it means closing the bridge for two years, effectively cutting off the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport and Harlem, and complicating what some have already called a "soul-sucking" commute to and from Kansas City's Northland. 

The other option, however isn't ideal. 

Replacing the bridge would cost $150 million. Where those additional funds would come from is unclear, but a portion of that money would almost certainly come from the city. 

“For every dollar we spend here, is one less dollar on a city street,” Minder says. 

Some city council members are staunchly against using money from the recently approved infrastructure bond package on a state-owned project.

Councilwoman Katheryn Shields says spending Kansas City taxpayers' money on state assets would eat up that pool too quickly and allow the state to shirk their responsibilities. 

"I think if the state things that we're going to step in and pick up a sizeable portion of this, there's going to be less inclination on the part of the state to do what they ought to be doing which is maintaining the assets that are under their control and are their responsibility," Shields says. 

Other city officials worry that not doing something on a larger scale will only prolong existing problems around the bridge. 

The council is currently considering a resolution to explore possible funding sources to replace the bridge, although it is still divided on whether to let MoDOT repair it, or go for a full replacement.

Lisa Rodriguez is the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Connect with her on Twitter @larodrig

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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