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As Biden touts new infrastructure bill, Florence Hayden hopes he learns from Kansas City's failures

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Laura Ziegler
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Florence Hayden, 93, used to walk one block from her home to Michigan Avenue for monthly block club meetings. Members would collect dues to make food for sick neighbors or send flowers when someone died. In the 1970s, U.S. Highway 71 eliminated Michigan Avenue entirely, forcing residents to move.

When the president comes to Kansas City on Wednesday, Florence Hayden doesn't expect to see him near her home along U.S. Highway 71. But she hopes he'll learn from officials how the highway separated her kids from their playmates, and how funding from his infrastructure bill might help other families avoid similiar losses.

Gazing out her storm door on a cold December day, Florence Hayden, 93, tapped the glass with her fingernail and reminisced about what her community was like before construction of U.S. Highway 71 ripped out an entire block of her neighborhood.

“When I looked out my door, I could see all the houses on Michigan (Avenue),” she said. “Our kids played with their friends over there and they had to move.”

Today, cars speed past on the highway below, people without shelter sleep and leave trash on her corner, and Woodland Avenue, on the other side of the highway, is no longer part of her community.

“The dignitaries, the high people, they might have thought this was a good idea,” she said of the highway placement. “But not for us. It messed up our neighborhood.”

The President’s visit

President Joe Biden is scheduled to be in Kansas City on Wednesday to promote his $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. This is his first visit to Kansas City since he was a presidential candidate.

With Biden's approval lagging, the White House sees an opportunity to celebrate a historic investment in the nation’s infrastructure, something cities across the country desperately need.

It doesn’t hurt that U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt was one of 19 Republican senators to vote for the legislation.

The bill includes billions of dollars for a range of projects beyond roads and bridges: cleaning up lead pipes and expanding access to high-speed internet; upgrades to power grids; improving railroads, airports and seaports.

With the legislation less than one month old, officials say there is little guidance about how to apply for the funds, so it’s too early to say which of Kansas City's infrastructure needs the federal program will support.

But officials hope some of those billions will come to the Kansas City metro. Mayor Quinton Lucas was among a small group of mayors who made multiple trips to Washington during the infrastructure debate.

As vice chair for transit with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and co-chair of Accelerator for America, a non-profit dedicated to finding local solutions to economic, and infrastructure challenges, Lucas was part of an elite group of mayors who joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a press conference supporting the infrastructure kickoff. And he stood alongside the president at the signing ceremony.

Lucas was also on the national stage promoting Kansas City’s first-in-the-nation zero fare bus program, passed by the Kansas City Council at the end of 2019. Lucas said he planned to talk about that with the president.

“My biggest hope is that the president, when he leaves, says, ‘Hey, I’ll leave $2 billion with you in Kansas City because you’re doing great work and you have lot of stuff to fix,'” Lucas said.

Something else the mayor might talk about with the president is acquiring funds from the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program.

It's designed to fix problems such as those Florence Hayden experienced when U.S.Highway 71 bisected her community. The program retrofits and redirects highways to reconnect divided neighborhoods.

Clean energy

Biden has prioritized fighting climate change, and Kansas City officials believe their efforts to promote clean energy, particularly in the transit sector, will position them well with the White House for infrastructure funding.

The KCATA has just received its first batch of zero-emission buses and expects to receive more soon. And the zero-fare transit initiative promotes public transit over cars.

Robbie Makinen, CEO of the KCATA, said the believes the president will understand Kansas City is already effectively using federal funds to promote White House goals.

"We’re actually using this funding to build public transit for the next 25 to 50 years,” he said. “We’re implementing ecofriendly measures that not only address climate change, but social and safety net programs as well. (The president) will see infrastructure improvement is working in Kansas City.”

Too late for her

Leaning in and pointing a finger for emphasis, Florence Hayden reiterated the pain and loss she and her neighbors felt when the highway went in.

"It was devastating," she said, shaking her head.

She's knows the new legislation won't affect her, but she said she hopes the president's priorities will prevent other communities from suffering a similar fate.

"I don't know where most of my friends and neighbors went," she said. "It's too late for any fixes to our neighborhood. But it may not be too late for some of the others."

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions. Email me at lauraz@kcur.org and follow me on Twitter @laurazig.
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