Shawnee Mission cities pitch long wish lists to perennially strapped Kansas transportation department

A truck speeding along I-435 in Lenexa. Photo credit Tristan Bowersox. Used under a Creative Commons license.

With guarded optimism, city and county leaders stepped toward the perennially strapped Kansas transportation department Thursday with the highway and transit dreams they hold most dear.

For Lenexa, a better interchange at Kansas Highway 10 and Lone Elm and the next phases of the Gateway project at Interstates 435 and 35 led the list. For Shawnee, it was additional lanes under I-35 at 75th Street and Kansas Highway 7 improvements north to the Kansas River bridge.

Overland Park speakers proposed a deal of sorts. They’d hold off on the longer list of needs if the state would please, please grant their biggest request – the expansion of U.S. Highway 69 to six lanes south of I-435.

KDOT and state lawmakers are trying to envision the next 10 years of projects. After years of budget shortfalls and borrowing, it is a daunting task. That was a fact acknowledged by Overland Park officials.

“We understand the tight money situation,” said Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach. “We could keep you here all day with a list of projects. But this by far is the number one project that will keep the economic impact coming to the state and the city of Overland Park.”

Money has indeed been an issue when it comes to fixing the area’s highways. Some $2 billion has been transferred out of the highway fund during the term of Gov. Sam Brownback to plug budget shortfalls and the department has subsequently borrowed, resulting in outstanding debt of about that much, according to op-ed in the Wichita Eagle by Duane Goossen, former Kansas budget director.

It will take the 2019 legislature to begin to solve that problem. In the meantime, elected and business leaders have been making their pitches to the state in a series of meetings of a joint legislative visioning task force. The Olathe meeting Thursday focused on metro area concerns.

Call for dedicated funding source for transit projects

County Chair Ed Eilert. File photo.

Several speakers, including Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert, called for a dedicated funding source for improvements that could not be as easily borrowed from.

The proposal for a wider U.S. 69 had the biggest group supporting it, with five speakers from Overland Park city hall and the business community, plus written testimony from 18 others.

They warned that the highway, approaching 50 years old, is an important artery that, if allowed to become overcrowded, could affect all local business. In written testimony, Ken Block of Block Real Estate Services, said slow-moving traffic on the highway could become a deterrent to the major commercial centers including City Place and Corporate Woods.

Congestion is already a problem along U.S. 69, and will get worse as the population grows, said Overland Park City Manager Bill Ebel. The highway already has more traffic than any other Kansas four-lane and the crash rate is higher than the state average, he said. By 2040, the traffic volume is expected to double, which will triple the travel time for people driving it, he said.

“We understand you have a challenging task before you and we don’t ask for this lightly,” Ebel said. “This is just a problem we cannot tackle by ourselves.” But the road is deteriorating faster than the state can maintain it, he said.

Meanwhile Lenexa, which has seen some major road improvements through the massive Gateway project, would like to see that work continue, said Blake Schreck, president of the Lenexa Chamber of Commerce. The interchange at K-10 and Lone Elm Road in particular is problematic, he said.

The city is building a Ridgeview Road connection to K-10 from Prairie Star Parkway that is expected to open up new commercial development, he said. To support the increased traffic, the city needs a better intersection at Lone Elm and has already gotten $7.5 million in federal money to design and get right-of-way. But the delay to actually build it has put the project on hold, he said. City officials worry that further delays could result in forfeiture of federal money tagged for the project.

The task force has been meeting in various parts of the state since September and has one more meeting scheduled for today (Friday) in Manhattan. The last scheduled meeting is in Topeka Nov. 28 and 29 to discuss recommendations.