Matthew Keenan

Archive for December, 2014

The new 435-Roe exchange … this is progress?

by on Dec.11, 2014, under Kansas City Star columns

Introductory comment … this column, which appeared in the KC Star on December 3rd, generated as many e-mail comments as the last “controversial” article I published, some 10 years ago, when I trashed the Star Wars movie — Attack of the Clones. As with both columns, some readers were entertained, others, well not so much …  


The Kansas Department of Transportation just spent $9 million reconstructing the Interstate 435 and Roe interchange. The work started back in May and required periodic re-routing of traffic off 435 and also disrupted surrounding businesses during the five-month construction.

Three weeks ago the overpass was reopened and life returned to normal.

Well, not exactly.

Last week I drove it for the first time. As I did, one question came to mind: Huh?

Apparently I was mistaken, but I figured new construction should simplify driving, not complicate it. This new overpass, to be generous, is the most complex, convoluted, confounding collection of signs, turns, lights and arrows ever assembled under the heading of “improvement.” The plot to “Interstellar” made more sense. Who designed this? Painfully awkward Rob Lowe?

When I returned to the scene of the crime the next day, I counted at least 12 signs giving drivers instructions on where to turn, start, stop and not turn. There are seven stoplights, each with multiple lights. And worst of all, it requires drivers who, for the entirety of their lives, have been taught to drive on the right side of the lane to now drive on the left side. But before you cross into a lane that screams “this can’t be right,” you stare at a traffic lane filled with cars pointed directly at you. And if it’s at night, there’s enough halogen wattage to burn your cornea. I saw drivers to my left and right bewildered, befuddled and angry due to the difficulty of following the signs, tweeting and texting simultaneously.

I pity anyone who dares to use the crosswalk.

This traffic pattern has a name. It’s called a diverging diamond. To whom do we owe this innovation? Apparently someone in France came up with idea in the 1970s. Shockingly, no one else embraced the idea for 30 years. This from the country that gave us Gerard Depardieu and now has a 75 percent tax rate.

A Time magazine story on this idea appeared in February 2011 and asked a very sensible question: “Why is a design used in Europe for decades only catching on in the U.S. now?” And then added another astute observation: “It’s perplexing in practice, at least at first, and confused drivers can be dangerous ones.” Duh.

It just shows what happens when engineers spend too much time in windowless rooms reading Popular Mechanics.

My wife described it as a motor vehicle version of intarsia, which as any knitter would understand, requires you to — never mind. It’s too complicated.

A couple weeks ago, The Star quoted department officials who claimed the new interchange is meant to facilitate traffic flow, especially during rush hour. The department explained it “improves safety, since left-turn movements do not conflict with opposing through movements.” Really? The website also notes that “the main disadvantage of a DDI (diverging diamond interchange) is that it is still a relatively new interchange type and drivers in the area may not be familiar with navigating them yet.”

Maybe it’s just me, but generally speaking, instructing drivers to now drive on the left side of the road is not simply a navigation issue. It’s a nightmare.

I’m not opposed to new ideas unless it’s another loud car alarm or the Segway. But perhaps the department should have picked an intersection that was not already brimming with dangerous drivers. Let’s see. To begin with there is a large building called “Advanced Health Care” whose website states that it is an alternative to nursing home living. Just across the road from there is a Freddy’s and then a Quiktrip, joined with a Sonic and Winstead’s across the street to east.

This is basically putting a Rubik’s cube at the epicenter of aged drivers, hungry drivers and drivers fixated on finding an empty pumping unit at QT. And God help us if any driver gazes to the west and notices the Godzilla cage that’s going up on Nall Avenue and 435.

The Titanic had better odds.

If you are reading this from your home in Mission Hills and never travel south of 75th Street but are curious and want to get a sense for things, here is my suggestion: Go find a cornfield maze and navigate it at midnight during a snowstorm.

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The Day I played Santa to 400 children (published 435 South, December, 2011)

by on Dec.09, 2014, under 435 South Columns

Television these days is featuring programming about tough jobs. You have the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs with Mike Row,” a huge hit. Then came oil workers in “Black Gold.” Tough guys all over the country sit on their couch, holding the remote, eating their chili cheese dogs and declare, “I can do that.” But none of these shows depict what is, in fact, the toughest job on the planet—playing Santa Claus to hundreds of toddlers. I know. Ten years ago I did just that, and I’ve been in therapy ever since.

You see, for years my law firm — Shook Hardy & Bacon — has had a “Santa day” when all our firm’s employees (more than 1,000) are invited to bring their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews to come see Santa. For years the role was held by my senior partner John Dods. John, now deceased, was the classic grandfather — a model of composure, patience, civility and professionalism. And since most parents don’t like their daughters sitting on the laps of strangers, this tradition was enormously popular. Here, for once, parents knew Santa was not someone on furlough from Leavenworth.

What happened the day I took over, I cannot forget. When I arrived only 30 minutes early, not yet in costume, the organizers were on the verge of calling police reinforcements. I faced a crowd of anxious soccer moms not unlike those seen in the serving line at any Starbucks during the holiday season.

For the next four hours, each child paraded up and sat on my lap. How often does an adult get to listen and ask questions of 400 toddlers? Answer: never.

This was a pediatric clinical trial no psychologist could ever replicate. Every child had common features. Nine varieties of the common cold and flu, plus another dozen viruses not yet cultured by the world’s finest hospitals. This was a small price to pay to conduct my own pediatric Rorschach test. At the end of the day, I learned that the world contains four kinds of kids.

The first group—the “I want it all” kids. Santa’s authenticity is nowhere on their radar. If an adult is willing to listen, they will gladly spout their wish list. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m betting these kids do not aspire to work in the Peace Corps in Darfur. These kids already have the Nintendo DS and the Xbox. They’ve been to Disneyland, Disneyworld and had first-class treatment courtesy of Carnival Cruises. Their request can often come in an Excel spreadsheet, coupled with an affidavit of good behavior from their kid brother.

Frequent question: “Our house has five chimneys. Which one are you coming down?”

The second group is the toddlers. Typical age, 4 days to 4 years. For them, meeting with Santa is strictly a photo op.

Their brains are wired to mistrust the four horsemen of scary icons—clowns, jugglers, Sluggerrrr and that oversized Chuck Cheese rat. Add bad Santa to their list. Their brain says, Santa may live in the North Pole, but this guy lives in a van down by the river. I’m not buying it.” They start screaming once they get to the front of the line, and it reaches a fever pitch when mom tosses them on my lap.

The next group is the older kids. Typical age, 8 to 12. These are the nonbelievers and are here only because they have a younger sibling. It’s all a fraud, and their goal is to expose the faker for their little brother. The taunts come early and often.

“Hey Santa, can I pull on your beard?” “Where is Rudolph — in the parking garage?” “Do you know obesity puts you at risk for diabetes?” As the day wore on, I started to push back, but some of the best one-liners came to me later that evening after I was sipping on something cold.

“Hey kid, try something new — mouthwash.”

“The earth is full. Go home.” “I’m busy now, can I ignore you some other time?”

“Your braces are picking up radio signals. Plus last week’s pizza.”

The final group is comprised of the “chosen ones”—the sweetest, kindest, most loving children on the planet. Typical age, 4. The image of a halo sets them apart. They are most often girls. Santa is real, and this face-to-face is on par with meeting Snow White, Cinderella and God. Their requests sound like a prayer: “My brother wants a teddy bear, and he is trying to be nice. My parents work really hard, and it would be nice to give them some time off. I only want to make my grandpa get better. He is sick.” These toddlers offer the hope of redemption for an entire generation.

And when it was finally over, I stumbled down the office hallway, far away from the screaming crowd, shed the costume in a pile and started on my own wish list for Christmas—that John Dods would return as Santa the following year.

A substantial request that, I’m happy to report, came to fruition.

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