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Amid Economic Uncertainty, Kansas City, Missouri, Approves $72 Million To Replace Buck O'Neil Bridge

Lisa Rodriguez
KCUR 89.3 file photo
At more than 60 years old, the Buck O'Neil Bridge, which carries 40,000 vehicles daily between downtown Kansas City and the Northland, is nearing the end of its useful life.

The Kansas City Council approved millions of dollars in expenditures, despite uncertainty over how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect tax revenues.

Kansas City will spend $72.5 million on a new Buck O’Neil Bridge in the coming months, despite uncertainty over how the economic downtown caused by the coronavirus pandemic will affect the city’s budget.

Before Thursday’s city council session, Councilwoman Katheryn Shields expressed her concerns about the city’s ongoing spending.

“I think we have a finance department that has overwhelmingly downplayed the critical nature of the situation that we are in,” she said.

Shields noted that in the short term, the city budget will already be $30 million short because the earnings tax deadline was extended until June.

Other area municipalities, including Johnson County, Kansas, are planning significant budget cuts. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced early this month he’s cutting $180 million from the state budget.

Still, last month Kansas City, Missouri, passed a budget based on revenue projections made before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Buck O’Neil Bridge

Conversations about replacing the aging Buck O’Neil Bridge have been ongoing for several years. At more than 60 years old, the bridge, which carries 40,000 vehicles daily between downtown Kansas City and the Northland, is nearing the end of its useful life.

Although it is a state asset, the Missouri Department of Transportation has said it cannot fund the entire cost of the $250 million replacement, so Kansas City is splitting the cost down the middle.

First District Councilman Kevin O’Neill said it’s a critical connector for the Northland, especially as his district continues to grow.

“This is going to play a major role in the Northland,” O’Neill said. “Unfortunately, the state threw it at us, because we had no other choice.”

Kansas City’s portion of the funding will come from a voter-approved sales tax for capital improvements, a $25 million federal grant it’s splitting with the state, and other federal infrastructure funding from neighboring jurisdictions.

Kansas City will borrow from its own city departments to front the $72.5 million it needs to pay the state by June and issue bonds later to reimburse itself.

The vote passed 10-3. Shields voted against the measure, saying the city should be spending its budget on needs that may arise in the coming months. Third District Councilman Brandon Ellington and Fifth District Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw also voted against the ordinance.

Kansas City Streetcar Extension

The council also authorized more than $7 million in contracts to continue work on a streetcar extension south to the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The money was previously approved by the city council in July 2019 and will be repaid within three years from property and sales tax revenues near the downtown streetcar line.

Councilwoman Teresa Loar said she understood that the money the previous council approved was simply a placeholder to help secure federal funding.

“It was not going to be spent and now they’re spending it,” Loar said.

The streetcar authority says it's still moving through the federal grant process and anticipates that funding will be approved by early 2021.

The ordinance passed 8-4. Loar, Ellington, Parks-Shaw and First District Councilwoman Heather Hall opposed it. Sixth District Councilwoman Andrea Bough abstained.

Waddell & Reed Headquarters

In the narrowest vote of the meeting, developers for the new downtown headquarters for financial services firm Waddell & Reed got a stamp of approval on its design.

The approval came despite concerns from city planners and neighbors that the 18-story building at 14th and Baltimore isn’t pedestrian friendly.

Plans for the building include eight floors of office space, 10 floors of parking and commercial space on the ground floor. City planners recommended 575 parking spaces, but 900-plus are planned.

Neighbors also have complained about parking garage entrances on three of the building’s four sides, obstructing pedestrians on 14th street.

City policy calls for development along transit corridors to encourage walkability, including transparent windows and places for people walking by to sit, shop or otherwise interact.

“There’s minimal effort to make that happen – 14th street is a blank wall mixed with some garage inferences,” Councilman Eric Bunch said.

Late last year, the Kansas City Council approved $35 million in incentives to help attract the company from Overland Park. That’s in addition to state incentives.

“We’ve given away school district money, library money, our own money to make this project happen, and the very least we can do is ask them to comply with adopted policy,” Bunch said.

Faced with the prospect of the project — along with the jobs it brings to the Missouri side of the state line — falling through, the council voted 7-6 to approve the plan.

Councilmembers Loar, O’Neill, Bough, Dan Fowler, Lee Barnes, Kevin McManus, Mayor Quinton Lucas voted in favor of the plan.

Councilmembers Ellington, Bunch, Shields, Parks-Shaw, Hall and Melissa Robinson opposed.

Lisa Rodriguez is the afternoon newscaster and covers Kansas City, Missouri, City Hall for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.

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