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City prepares to take on retaining wall project

A 350-foot stretch of North Kansas City Avenue doesn’t have any houses on it, but for those who live on the north and west sides of town, it’s a vital link to downtown and the community’s east side.

But a cobbled-together retaining wall on the east side of the roadway between Broadway Avenue and Cliff Drive needs to be replaced. On Monday afternoon, the Excelsior Springs Capital Improvements Authority gave the thumbs up for their $400,000 portion of the job—but not before some very pointed questions from the authority members.

The project has been in the works for at least a year and a half, and focuses on the retaining wall—which is, depending on where one looks, made of concrete, I-beams and piers, timbers or rock and stacked stone—along the narrow part of the street, above the bed of the Fishing River’s Dry Fork. It starts just north of Broadway, but ends south of where the city recently installed new guardrail.

According to Public Works Director Chad Birdsong, in March 2012 the Transportation Trust Authority allocated $23,400 to conduct a study regarding the retaining wall’s replacement. Of three or four designs considered, a mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) wall system with panels, recompacted stone and soil nails was chosen as the best option.

The estimated cost of the job was just short of $900,000—nearly $700,000 for the actual construction, just over $100,000 as a contingency and about $90,000 for engineering.

Since then, the Transportation Trust Authority set aside $400,000 for the job, and Road and Bridge allocated an additional $125,000. On Monday, Birdsong was seeking the CIA’s approval of another $400,000, to bring the total allocation to $925,000.

But Commissioner Bob Ingle was hesitant to assign that much money for one stretch of roadway.

“We’re talking $1 million, if we’re lucky on the bids?” Ingle asked, noting that the project had not yet been bid out and could come in at higher than the estimate.

Birdsong said that was a possibility, but that there are already contingencies built into the price so it shouldn’t be a concern; additionally, he and Director of Administrative Services Steve Marriott said any overage would be prorated among the three funding bodies, and not laid solely at the feet of the CIA. He also said that while it appeared that the cost for the project would come out to about $2,500 per linear foot of roadway, the price is actually calculated to reflect the face frontage of the retaining wall—and because of the steepness of the slope to the east, there is significant square footage there.

Ingle still wasn’t convinced, and fellow Commissioner Mike Edwards joined him in some of his concerns.

“We allocated a bunch of money for culvert repair,” Edwards explained, and while he said those jobs are definitely needed, “I wonder if those things are in the area the constituents voted for regarding capital improvements. It concerns me, using this much money for road projects.”

Birdsong pointed out that Transportation Trust and Road and Bridge were also contributing to the project, but it was too costly for either of them to take on by themselves. He also noted that approximately 30 years ago, work was needed on the wall and city leaders at the time apparently decided a less expensive, temporary fix was preferable to a long-term solution. The retaining wall as proposed on Monday would be engineered for a 50-year lifespan, though he noted that it could theoretically last for decades longer.

“If they’d done this the last time, we wouldn’t have to deal with it for another 20 years or more,” Birdsong said.

Birdsong also reminded the authority that capital improvements money represented the lion’s share of street work done in the downtown business district a decade ago.

Others on the authority leaned toward approving the project.

“When I moved here 24 years ago, it looked like everything was let go,” said Commissioner John Hill “I’ve watched millions and millions of dollars spent fixing the town up. My biggest issue is that it’s done right.”

Mayor Ambrose Buckman, the council liaison to the authority, was even more forceful.

“This project is needed for the city,” he said. “This road is needed. Not having it would hurt downtown—it’s a very important road. It’s not like we’re going to go broke…if we get in too deep, then we can stop spending, and hold off on something.”

City Manager David Haugland pointed out that in addition to providing easy access to the downtown area for those who live to the north and west, he also viewed the project as a public safety issue. While the fire department’s pumper trucks don’t typically use the roadway due to their weight, the ambulance drives on it all the time, providing service to downtown high-rises, east side residents and a new residential neighborhood on the edge of the downtown business district. He added that he feels this project is vital, and should be put ahead of others on the wish list.

“We’ve put some things on the back burner, because other needs were more important,” Haugland noted, implying that the retaining wall was one of the latter type.

Commissioner Estella Morrison cut to the chase.

“If we don’t approve this, what happens?” she asked.

Birdsong’s response was that without the contribution from capital improvements, the project could not be done and, probably in the not-too-distant future, that section of North Kansas City Avenue would be cut back to a one-lane, one-way street and then likely closed altogether.

In the event of a closure, traffic that currently uses the roadway would use a more westward route like Dunbar or Old Orchard, the steep streets to the east like Cliff Drive, Edward Street and the northern portion of Thompson Avenue, or stick to Missouri 10 for access to downtown and the east side.

But Ingle presented the other side of that coin.

“If we approve this, what are we not going to do?” Ingle asked. “Will we not be able to do work on the Hall of Waters, or contribute on a community center, or something else? By saying ‘yes’ to this, what are we saying ‘no’ to?”

However, when it came to a vote, both Edwards and Ingle sided with the rest of the commission in granting unanimous approval.

The funding allocation will now go to the council, and engineering is expected to be completed this fall. Bids would be taken early next year and awarded in early spring, and the project would take place next summer.

Birdsong said the finished project would be similar to the retaining walls that drivers can see at recently-redone interchanges like the one at Interstate 35 and Missouri 291 in Liberty. The finished roadway is also expected to be a few feet wider than the current roadway is.

Hundreds of people drive on North Kansas City Avenue every day, but city officials are concerned about the future of a patchwork retaining wall along its east side. A major overhaul of the wall is expected in the coming months. (Photo by Eric Copeland)

Hundreds of people drive on North Kansas City Avenue every day, but city officials are concerned about the future of a patchwork retaining wall along its east side. A major overhaul of the wall is expected in the coming months. (Photo by Eric Copeland)

By Eric Copeland •

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