Steel street plates have taken over KC — here’s the deal

Photography by Jeremey Theron Kirby

Potholes are not a new problem in Kansas City — the city’s six thousand miles of roadway have long been pocked like a high school sophomore. Recently, though, a new menace has emerged.

If you drive certain roads in the city (looking at you, 75th Street) you’ve no doubt encountered slabs of slippery, teeth-chattering steel that seemingly stretch for full a block. They can stay in place for months.

The slabs o’ steel have not yet garnered the attention that potholes do.

By December, the city’s 311 system had received nearly nineteen thousand pothole calls for 2019, according to Kansas City Public Works spokesperson Maggie Green, who was quick to tout the city’s interactive pothole map online. By comparison, Green notes, calls related to road work that might involve steel plates pulled in fewer than eight hundred complaints for the same time period. There is no record of how many plates are on the streets at any time, but Public Works received about sixteen hundred permit requests for the year.

“The city doesn’t own [the plates],” Green says. “It’s either the contractors or the utility companies that put them out.”

These steel sheets act as ginormous gray Band-Aids for construction sites, cave-ins, manhole repairs, burst water mains and the like.

Ideally, these huge steel plates allow for the free flow of traffic while workers are off duty. KC Water lays down a lot of them. Heather Frierson, a spokesperson for the utility, told Kansas City that KC Water boasts a reserve of one hundred and fifty steel plates, which vary in size from eight-by-ten feet to eight-by-twenty feet and can weigh more than a ton. At any given time, the utility has seventy-three plates in use.

“It’s like a revolving door,” Frierson says. “They go down for a little bit depending on the project, and then they’re taken back up.”

City code mandates that plates be pinned down and ramped so the plates are secure and offer a smooth transition from one part of the road to another. However, a 2015 study by the city auditor found that some plates had not been installed properly. Unpinned plates can shift, the auditor observed, exposing trenches in the road. Worse still, sometimes the plates did not fully cover an excavated area. 

As a result of the study, permit fees increased to cover the cost of more vigorous enforcement efforts and the city began affixing the requirements and codes regarding the plates to permit applications.

And yet, despite the 311 complaints, issues with the plates persist. On the flip side, it could be worse. Much worse. This year, WalletHub rated Kansas City dead center in a list of best and worst cities to drive in: number fifty out of one hundred U.S. cities surveyed. And the city is spending more to improve its roads, with major reconstruction resulting from an $800 million bond measure passed by voters in April 2017.

As for the street plates themselves, they’re a pain in the tuchis, but there may be a silver lining. In a 2016 Atlantic piece on road plates, writer Ian Bogost suggested that such plates act as impromptu speed bumps in American urban areas, offering what he called a “calming effect” on drivers, forcing them to slow down and be more careful as they traverse city streets.

Steel street plates by the numbers:

Size: From 8-by-10 feet to 8-by-20 feet

Thickness: 1.25 inches

Weight: 2,000 to 4,000 pounds

Cost to buy: $2,500 for an 8-by-14 foot slab; fluctuates with the price of steel

Cost to rent: $120 per day

Number on KC streets: 16,000 permits were requested for steel road plates in 2019.

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