In a big breakthrough for downtown commuters, Missouri highway and Kansas City officials have come up with an interim repair plan that avoids closing the Buck O'Neil Bridge entirely and buys time for a hoped-for, permanent replacement.
The tentative plan would address critical repair needs to the bridge that carries U.S. Route 169 traffic between downtown and the Northland at a cost of about $6 million, and budgets $2 million to study a potential replacement. It opened in 1956 as the Broadway Bridge.
The approximately six-month project could be accomplished while continuing to allow two lanes of northbound traffic throughout the work, state highway officials said. The southbound highway lanes however, would be closed for the duration.
That's a big improvement however, over a previous major overhaul proposal that would have closed the bridge, which carries 40,000 vehicles daily, entirely for two years.
The cost for the proposed interim repair plan would be shared 50-50 by the city and state. Work would begin late next spring or early summer.
Brian Kidwell, local administrator for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said the new plan would provide local officials time to explore ways to fund what most people prefer: a $200 million replacement span that would directly connect with Interstate 35, also known as the West Loop.
"I really think a new bridge has a good shot," Kidwell said. "It will take time to get it together."
MoDOT previously had been considering a $51 million overhaul of the existing O'Neil Bridge that would have closed it for two years, added no options for pedestrians and bicyclists, and left the current clumsy connection to I-35 intact, an idea that drew strong community objections.
Kidwell described that option as "super disruptive."
Instead, local transportation advocates want a completely new span with a more westerly alignment that would serve downtown and I-35 traffic better as well as provide additional transportation options. A new bridge also could be built while traffic continued to use the existing O'Neil Bridge.
The problem: The ambitious long-term replacement plan would cost at least $200 million, and at this point, MoDOT, which has experienced years of budget cuts, has identified only about half the funding.
"We don't have it, and Kansas City, Missouri, and the region are working on different scenarios and options for half the cost of a new bridge," Kidwell said. "There is a tremendous desire and sincere effort to give the public something better."
The interim plan would fix the "worst of the worst" structural problems currently at the bridge and also address riverbed erosion issues, Kidwell said. An additional $2 million would be included to begin the environmental studies required if a replacement span would be built.
The decision to keep two north-bound lanes open in the interim repair proposal was partly in response to requests by city fire and police officials to keep access open to the Charles Wheeler Downtown Airport, which is served by a fire station based in the River Market.
Kidwell also said to have one-lane open each direction would cause major congestion issues during rush hour. Instead, southbound traffic will be encouraged to use Interstate 29/35 which carries traffic on the Kit Bond Bridge.
Complicating matters for downtown commuters, the Kansas Department of Transportation is planning to close the westbound Lewis and Clark Viaduct, which carries I-70 traffic to downtown Kansas City, Kansas, for an estimated 18 months beginning early next year. The aging viaduct is being replaced.
There will be a public information meeting about the repair plan at the Mid-America Regional Alliance board room on Nov. 30 from 2-4 p.m.
Kevin Collison, a freelance contributor to KCUR 89.3, writes about downtown Kansas City for his website CityScene KC.