Matthew Keenan

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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