KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A joint-effort plan to replace The Buck O'Neil Bridge, formerly the Broadway Bridge, will be put into action by the end of 2021.
The bridge, which has been a Kansas City, Missouri, icon since the 1950s, is more than 60 years old. A previous long-term repair turned into a short-term fix that wasn't going to last. But in 2018, the Missouri Department of Transportation, KCMO and regional partners received a $25 million federal grant and have begun moving forward with a plan to replace the bridge.
"We want a true feature for our city," said Matt Staub, vice president of the River Market Community Association. "It's going to be an icon, and we're going to have it for a generation or more."
Addressing drivers' concerns
Mary Miller, MoDOT project director, said commuters have expressed interest in having direct access from U.S. 169 to Interstate 35.
"That was one of the key things we wanted to make sure was incorporated into the project," Miller said.
Of four designs presented in the planning phase, MoDOT chose the central alternative option, which addresses that main concern.
"They don't have to go through those signals on Broadway anymore," Miller said. "They can go directly from I-35 to 169, so that saves a lot of time."
MoDOT selected Massman-Clarkson, A Joint Venture, as the design-build contractor on the roughly $219 million project. The city is providing almost half of that funding.
Almost 50,000 people cross the bridge every day, and Miller said the changes are expected to save nearly eight minutes of drive time during evening hours.
"Fifty percent of the traffic goes from 169 to I-35 and 50% of traffic goes from 169 into downtown," Miller said. "So it's going to take all that traffic out of those intersections."
The new design also addresses the need for a designated bike and pedestrian lane. It will provide a 10-foot lane for pedestrian traffic on the eastern bridge structure.
Even with that checked off the list, Staub said the bridge's design and infrastructure will have "draconian" impact.
"It doesn't integrate well with the community," Staub said. "It's designed more to take people out and through than it is to connect the community."
Staub, an urbanist, said the bridge design does nothing to improve urban density, which is the concentration of amenities and housing in a neighborhood that does not require a car to access it.
"We've built a society that requires it now," Staub said. "And you look at what Kansas City was like before we put all this car infrastructure in. It was an amazing place. And, for generations, we sort of tore that out and we look back at, regret, at what we lost, and this project is a reminder that we're still doing it."
A few buildings on either side of the Landmark Lofts building at 425 Washington Street will be torn out to make way for the new bridge flyover ramps, one of which is the direct connection to I-35.
That part of the River Market already is separated from downtown because the Interstate 70 north loop cuts through it.
Miller said MoDOT considered these concerns in its environmental study.
"None of the buildings we're demolishing are eligible for historic register, and none are on the historic register," Miller said.
Still, Staub said, the relics of an old streetscape are what make the River Market and downtown so interesting. He uses an old red brick alleyway next to 510 W 5th St., which will be torn out, as an example.
"We can't get them back to reconsider how we might want to use them once they're gone," Staub said.
MoDOT said the chosen design is the best value and the one they preferred.
Staub and other critics preferred a western option that would have shifted the ramps further west and improved community connectivity more than the central alternative.
The western option also cost more money — between $230 million and $250 million — when MoDOT already was up against budget restraints.
"There's a lot to think about with the new bridge," said Ron Achelpohl, director of transportation and environment for Mid-America Regional Council. "How it serves commuters going across the river that aren't destined for downtown, how it serves downtown, how it serves the Northland."
Achelpohl echoed what Miller said about the project: that it's in a constrained area and developers have to think about interfering with the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport to the west, the railroad on the banks of the Missouri River and the river itself.
Rethinking Kansas City infrastructure
The Mid-America Regional Council's Beyond the Loop study said the bridge project is a key opportunity to rethink the use of I-70, which also is outdated and has split downtown neighborhoods apart.
"That corridor is one of the corridors I think makes sense to look at in terms of continued growth in the downtown area on both sides of I-70," Achelpohl said.
Ultimately, MARC would like to see a reconfiguration of the north loop, which closely follows the objectives outlined in a 2017 Urban Land Institute Study, that could include shrinking I-70's footprint, making it a surface street, turning it into a boulevard or removed altogether.
Achelpohl said all these options are possible with the new bridge design.
Northland commuters made their voices loud and clear: they wanted the new bridge to be better than what they drive on now.
"Without the new bridge, I might say it will stunt the growth," said Edward Ford, chair of the Northland Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Ford estimated that the Northland population has doubled in the past 20 years.
Quicker commutes are important, Ford said, but so is how the bridge looks.
"It's a lot of concrete," Ford said. "We're very hopeful that MoDOT will continue working with us on bridge enhancements."
Ford said he'd like to see nicer fencing where pedestrians will have a direct view of the river. He'd also love to see a statue or some dedication to John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil, the bridge's namesake.
The chosen Massman-Clarkson bridge design details don't mention a Buck O'Neil art installation, but the other teams that did not win the contract, Traylor Ames Joint Venture and American Bridge, planned for either O'Neil murals, a statue or plaque.
MoDOT said the public will have opportunities to weigh in on murals, green space options and other aesthetics.
The project should start by winter 2021 and be finish by December 2024.