Four years after Kansas City was awarded federal funds for downtown bike lanes, bicyclists are still dodging cars and resorting to riding on the sidewalks.
None of the Grand Boulevard “road diet” work has been done, and only a tiny portion of the rest of the downtown loop has been accomplished.
Bike advocates are increasingly unhappy.
“I think the most frustrating part about the slow pace is that the city has made an effort and at least paid lip service to the idea that we’re going to become a bicycle-friendly community,” said Eric Bunch, policy director with BikeWalkKC. “That promise is relatively hollow if we can’t deliver simple projects like painting bike lanes within a reasonable amount of time.”
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City public works officials respond that it took time to get sufficient community input for project design. Then, cumbersome federal contracting rules led to construction bids coming in way over budget, not once but twice.
They’ve finally decided to pay for the bike lanes with local funds and use the federal funds for different purposes. A measure to that effect goes to the city council’s finance committee Wednesday.
”We want to start the Grand Boulevard portion of this project before the end of the year,” Beth Breitenstein, spokeswoman for Kansas City’s public works department, said Friday.
Bunch said Friday he was somewhat encouraged with this new direction. But he remains concerned that long-promised and funded bike projects on Armour and Benton boulevards also need to get done.
The saga of Kansas City’s downtown bike lane effort dates back to 2013, when Kansas City was awarded $724,000 in federal air quality funds for a 12-mile downtown loop, including several miles on Grand Boulevard from River Market to Crown Center, plus additional miles on 18th Street, Beardsley Road, West Pennway and 20th Street.
Dubbed the Downtown Loop Connector, it was meant to establish key neighborhood connections to 18th and Vine, Crossroads and the West Side and was part of a Grand Boulevard “road diet’ concept of reducing traffic lanes.
“Unfortunately, the paint-only project has been plagued by administrative red tape, poor execution and a general lack of leadership,” Bunch wrote in a BikeWalkKC blog post July 25. “It has taken four years to figure out how to unlock the federal funding to paint some stripes.”
He said the city should have used local funds a long time ago, as has been done in other cities. For example, he said, Overland Park has managed to do 15 miles of bike lanes in recent years, mostly with local street resurfacing funds.
Kansas City Public Works Director Sherri McIntyre acknowledges some delays but disagrees the project is years behind schedule.
“There was extensive design and community coordination on this, which takes time,” she said, arguing that it’s not just a matter of painting lines on a road. It requires coordination with businesses and other interests regarding parking, buses and traffic.
After the downtown design was ready, the city finally bid the project in June 2016, with a $600,000 budget. The one bid came in just under $1 million. So public works adjusted the project and rebid it again in November. Same problem: one bidder, way over budget.
McIntyre says when cities use these federal funds, a prime contractor has to self-perform 30 percent of the work. But prime contractors charge considerably more than striping subcontractors.
“Our striping contractor has never been the prime on a federally funded project,” McIntyre explained. “The prime is more expensive because this isn’t a prime’s lead activity.”
The city asked federal highway officials to drop the 30-percent rule to 10 percent. That request was denied Aug. 17.
So finally, just days ago, public works decided to use $600,000 in local funds to get the job done, and that plan goes to the city council Aug. 30. The work would be a change order to an existing street resurfacing contract and would not have to be rebid.
Bunch appreciates that, but points out that bike work which was promised this year on Benton Boulevard and Armour Boulevard do not appear to be addressed by this latest measure. He says those promises can’t be ignored.