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Kansas City will study how to reconnect neighborhoods segregated by Highway 71

Alyson Raletz
KCUR 89.3
The $5 million federal grant will give the city an opportunity to study safety improvements along U.S. Highway 71.

The six-lane U.S. Highway 71 separated Kansas City's predominantly-Black neighborhoods from downtown. A $5 million federal grant will study what can be done to reconnect those communities and improve pedestrian safety at intersections.

When U.S. Highway 71 was constructed in the 1990s, with the promise of shuttling cars into downtown Kansas City, its six lanessliced through predominantly Black communities in the city’s eastern neighborhoods – cutting them off from the center of the city.

Now, Kansas City has a $5 million grant to study safety improvements along Highway 71, with a focus on a six-mile stretch from 85th Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The project is called “Reconnecting Neighborhoods,” and is funded with a federal grant from the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity program under the U.S. Department of Transportation.

At a press conference Monday morning, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said he grew up in neighborhoods east of Troost at the same time that Highway 71 was being built.

“I was asking a family member, ‘What are they building there?’ And they said, ‘A faster way downtown,’” he said. “But what I remember at the time was thinking, ‘What does it have to do with us in our neighborhood and why does it have to go through us and our neighborhood?’ You can't go back to the past, but you can try to do better.”

The city will use the money to conduct a planning and environmental study and a National Environmental Protection Act analysis. City officials will also engage with residents and neighborhoods impacted by Highway 71.

Lucas said the grant is the first step in conducting infrastructure improvements and connecting neighborhoods that were historically divided by the highway’s construction.

The study is expected to take up to two years, and will specifically examine how to make crossing Highway 71 — which can be a daunting task — safer.

To get food, go to church or the store, pedestrians have to cross wide intersections spanning six lanes of speeding cars.

“The few things that we will be looking at is, how can we make it more efficient for our pedestrians and others who are traveling east-west through the community to be able to get across the street?” Lucas said. “It's not so much a north-south conversation. It's, ‘What are we doing for the people who live in these communities and for too long have been left out?’”

Lucas said their primary focus is pedestrians and residents of nearby neighborhoods, rather than cars.

“There are a lot of people that make choices each day to not cross the highway — parents that don't want their kids going across the highway, even though there's a corner store right there,” he said. “We're trying to figure out a way to make this actually more of a community for them, not just a place that is bisected by 71 Highway.”

Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw represents Kansas City’s 5th District, which includes neighborhoods that were disrupted by the Highway 71 construction.

“I'm definitely excited about this, more so just for improved safety for the residents,” she said.

Highway 71 is also a hot spot for fatal and severe-injury car crashes.

Kansas City Police Sergeant Grant Ruark, who works in the traffic division, said that speeding, a lack of seatbelt use and driving under the influence are major factors in car accidents along the highway.

“This stretch of roadway and the intersections along it have been on our top 10 for traffic crashes of all types for years and years and years,” Ruark said.

Jason Waldron with Kansas City Public Works believes the grant fits into the city’s Vision Zero plan, which seeks to eliminate fatal and serious accidents by 2030.

Last week, City Council passed a resolution adopting the Vision Zero action plan, which establishes guidance for things like building bike lanes and improving roads, and directs the city to apply for federal funding to support those projects.

“When you look out at this intersection, and you think about trying to cross it every day or multiple times a day, this is what Vision Zero is all about,” Waldron said. “It's making sure that all modes of traffic can be well represented and safe.”

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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