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‘An Absolute Failure:’ Kansas City Council Blasts Millions Spent On Infrastructure Projects

Construction work on Green Hills Road was partially funded by Kansas City general obligation bonds in a partnership with Platte County. and the Mid-America Regional Council.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Construction work on Green Hills Road was partially funded by Kansas City general obligation bonds in a partnership with Platte County and the Mid-America Regional Council.

A council committee is taking a harder look at $78 million worth of slated infrastructure projects after concerns were raised about wasteful spending.

Kansas City councilmembers are worried the city has wasted millions of dollars on infrastructure projects that aren’t critically needed.

Voters approved $800 million in general obligation bonds in 2017 that would be spread out over two decades to pay for street, sidewalk and other infrastructure repairs. But at the rate the city council has doled out money, the program would only last about 15 years, according to the city’s finance department director.

“In terms of addressing deferred maintenance, this program is an absolute failure,” Councilwoman Katheryn Shields said at a committee meeting Wednesday.

In a rare move during the budget approval process in late March, the full city council ditched plans to borrow almost $78 million through bonds for streets, sidewalks and other building projects. Now a committee is taking a closer look at the slated projects.

Under the GO bond project, the city anticipated spending about $40 million each year. But since its inception, the council has always budgeted more than that. Last year the city issued about $53.6 million in bonds.

“What's going to happen… when there's, just frankly, no GO bond money left?” Councilman Kevin McManus asked. “... We're burning off more cash each year now through the GO bond program, and it's just going to be gone sooner.”

Councilman Lee Barnes said the city needed to prioritize projects based on a “real need versus something that's more convenient.” And Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas suggested the city “almost restart” by identifying the road projects that are absolutely critical.

The GO bond project was begun under a different city council and city manager, who had different priorities.

“Whatever the city manager was interested in for a number of years became a GO bond project,” Lucas said.

A city council committee is scheduled to review a revised list of road and sidewalk projects next week. While it’s unclear what will be on the chopping block, a few projects were the subject of tough questions from councilmembers Wednesday.

Those included changing Charlotte Street between 12th street and Truman Road from a one-way to a two-way street at the cost of $2.12 million. The street condition is currently rated as “very poor,” which the project wouldn’t address. Shields said it’s wasting money to change the road to a two-way street instead of repairing its current condition.

“We're either going to have to come back pretty soon and rebuild it, or it's going to deteriorate more,” Shields said.

Councilmembers also expressed skepticism about projects that added more roads or sidewalks to the city. That included spending $9 million to construct Arlington Road Link, which connects Northeast Parvin Road to Northeast 48th Street. Funding for that is spread out over three years and is already committed.

“How many projects have we built in the past that have actually added capacity and added more lane miles [to] the system that we've already determined we can't afford to fix?” Councilman Eric Bunch said. “We're doubling down on the problem that got us here in the first place, which is building too much.”

Aviva Okeson-Haberman was the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3.
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