So with that background, this frank filet can say with confidence that Kansas City's Bruce R. Watkins Drive is the most half-assed excuse for a highway it has ever seen.
A misguided monument to political correctness, the Frankenstein creation also known as Highway 71 starts out as a sensible freeway that provides an important connection between different parts of the metro -- whether you're coming from the downtown loop on the north or the Grandview Triangle on the south.
But then there's that incredibly stupid part in the middle, when a nicely designed superhighway becomes a deathtrap. Signaled intersections at 55th Street, 59th Street and Gregory Boulevard force traffic to congeal like blood clots, causing long backups during rush hour for no discernible reason other than to create the perfect opportunity for tire-screeching collisions.
Back in February, Craig Bland, Missouri's state representative for the 43rd District, which includes that dangerous stretch of highway, did what any other sensible lawmaker would do when his constituents found themselves taking their lives into their hands every time they crossed the freakish road. Bland introduced a bill that would create a state committee to study Highway 71, the first step in doing something to change it.
Then a curious thing happened. The Kansas City Star blasted the bill in an editorial, all but calling Bland a jackass, and told readers that everyone had better just keep their meddling hands off Bruce Watkins Drive.
What the -- !
Why would a newspaper be so protective of a road with more dangerous design flaws than a speeding 1961 Chevy Corvair with low tire pressure?
Well, there's a story behind it, of course.
More than 50 years ago, highway designers drew a line on a map, figuring a freeway would eventually be needed to connect downtown Kansas City with suburbs to the south. In 1951, they were drawing that line through neighborhoods that were largely populated with white folks. But by the time the state got serious about building the road, some 15 years later, those neighborhoods had changed and were largely black.
An alternative route would take a major freeway through the Plaza and down the west side through affluent white neighborhoods. The City Council considered that plan for about 30 seconds before spiking it.
There was no question. The new freeway would come through the black part of town. The state started buying up houses along the new route to begin demolition.
Naturally, black leaders were unhappy, and in 1973 a lawsuit stopped the project in its tracks. The case dragged through the federal courts for 12 years before the parties reached a compromise and construction could begin. Over the state's objections, federal highway officials caved to the concerns of the black community, which demanded that the new road be less than a freeway and something more along the lines of Ward Parkway -- a glorified boulevard with nicely landscaped intersections.
In the early 1990s, when road construction was nearing that dangerous middle section, state officials tried to persuade then-mayor Emanuel Cleaver that the intersections called for in the 1985 court decree were a very bad idea.
Cleaver and the Star, however, were convinced that the half-freeway, half-parkway design was somehow a matter of racial justice. "The resentment [toward the highway] I hear is that every major roadway is planned through the black community for the convenience of suburbanites, who are mostly white. It adds to the paranoia of the black community that things are always planned to damage us," Cleaver said years later in a typical quote.
The Star, meanwhile, hailed the parkway concept and defended it against every attempt by the highway department to convince people that safety, not politics, was the more important consideration.
Was the location of Highway 71 a racially motivated slap at black communities?
Yes, of course it was. And Cleaver was right to get millions of dollars from the city to make sure that the highway was far more lavishly appointed than originally planned, to make up for the disruption. The northern stretch of highway, built last and designed most like a freeway, includes beautifully designed overpasses and other niceties that were a direct result of Cleaver's push to keep the road from being just another ugly, concrete intrusion.
But fighting racism by putting three intersections in the middle of a freeway made no sense then and makes none now.
In 1993, James Gamble, a member of the state's highway commission, tried to change Cleaver's mind about the parkway concept. Citing a state highway department study, he predicted that the three intersections would produce 31 injury accidents and one death every year.
By that prediction, you would expect in a three-year period to find 93 injury accidents and 3 deaths. In the three years from 2002 to 2004, however, those three intersections actually produced 443 accidents, 209 injuries and 2 deaths.
Gamble doesn't enjoy being proved right. When the Strip called him recently, he didn't want to comment, saying that his involvement in the debacle was finished.
Now, here comes the ironic part. Craig Bland, the state rep who wants to do something about Highway 71's bad design, is black. And he says it's his black constituents who are calling him constantly to ask that something be done about Bruce Watkins and its terrible intersections.
"I think it was a mistake to build it that way," he tells this tenderloin. "Things have changed because people in those neighborhoods now understand what [the state highway department] was trying to tell them 30 years ago."
Even Emanuel Cleaver, now a U.S. congressman, recognizes that feelings about the highway have changed. "If people see the transformation of Bruce Watkins Drive as something that would better the community, then I support that decision," he tells the Strip. And he says he supports Bland's efforts.
Bland discovered that state highway designers were so sure that the public would come to regret the bad design, they built in features that would help change it. This gave him hope, and he plans to reintroduce his bill in the state Legislature's next session.
But when he introduced his bill in February, the Star sneered that it had no co-sponsors, and the paper's subsequent editorial made it clear that the Star still considers the highway a shrine to its feel-good fight against racism.
Problem is, no one asked J.L. McCon if he wanted to die for that fight.
On April 5, a dark, cloudy morning 39 days after the Star's editorial appeared, McCon, 77, was driving his wife, Ernestine, 74, to do some work for a local election board.
The McCons have eight children, three of whom live in Kansas City, and when those children were growing up, they went to school with a kid in the neighborhood named Craig Bland.
Ernestine says the McCons were always nervous about crossing Highway 71, where they would often see drivers on the highway running through the red lights at the crossing. "A lot of people say that's a dangerous area," she tells the Strip.
That morning, as the light at 59th Street turned green, J.L. McCon began crossing the highway in the couple's Lincoln Town Car. A police report shows that, at that moment, a woman from Mississippi, Barbara Head, 51, was driving a cattle truck north on Bruce R. Watkins Drive with her husband, Steve, 58. Traveling in the center lane, she failed to stop for the red light at the intersection. And even if she had tried to stop, a collision would have been likely; an inspection later showed that three of her brakes were out of adjustment.
The cattle truck slammed into the Town Car on the driver's side and carried it far from the intersection. J.L. McCon was killed. Ernestine fractured her pelvis. The Heads were uninjured.
Nearly two months later, Ernestine McCon is still in a hospital, undergoing physical therapy. When the Strip called last week, she said she was happy to find that just that morning, for the first time, she was able to put weight on both feet.
And what about the highway? "They ought to do something about it," she says.
Doing something about it, however, is going to be costly. Missouri Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Porter says converting the three intersections to overpasses will cost up to $25 million each just in construction.
"We want to leave the door open in case the community changes its mind about this," Porter says. "But it would still incur a substantial cost. We have many other needs now." He adds that progress at the Grandview Triangle is now sucking up most of the transportation dollars in our region.
Craig Bland's fight might be a fool's errand. But there's one thing this riblet is certain of: Bland deserves no criticism from the daily newspaper that helped create this mess in the first place.
Tony Ortega talks about this week's Pitch with KRBZ 96.5's Lazlo after 4 p.m. Wednesday.