By Jodi Fortino
Johnson County residents raised concerns during a virtual meeting this week about the potential toll costs associated with a U.S. 69 Highway expansion proposal.
The meeting was the second in a series of town hall meetings hosted by the Kansas Department of Transportation, KDOT, to gather feedback on the project that would expand the highway from four to six lanes from 103rd Street to 179th Street.
KDOT explained that adding express toll lanes is the best option. The department’s study showed the express toll option outperformed alternative plans in improving safety, reducing congestion and promoting sustainability.
The plan outlined the proposed toll costs with drivers paying $1.75 for a full corridor trip in the afternoon southbound, and $1.50 in the morning northbound. It would cost an estimated 65 cents during non-peak hours.
According to Cameron McGown, project manager for HNTB engineering, the rates are less than the national average. The national average is 56 cents per mile. The proposed rate was estimated between 25 and 32 cents per mile.
“We should be below the national average. Overland Park does not have the same levels of congestion as places in California or Miami or Houston,” McGown said. “We can achieve that same goal with much lower rates.”
Residents raised concerns during the public comment that the express lane model is inequitable and would favor wealthier drivers.
McGown said that the express lane is an option, not necessarily a choice drivers will make on a daily basis.
“When it’s really important, rather than sitting there in traffic that’s all going the same speed, if there is a trip that is extremely important to you, it gives you the option to take advantage of those higher speed trips,” McGown said.
Some residents pointed to other alternatives proposed by the department, including traditional widening.
This alternative would add one new general-purpose lane in each direction for all motorists. It would also include improvements to local interchanges, and the reconstruction of existing pavement and bridges.
But Lindsey Douglas, deputy secretary at KDOT, said the express lane is more affordable and sustainable.
“If the toll option is chosen, we think that that will help manage the congestion more for the long-term with the size of the facility. And it also is a lower cost option,” Douglas said.
KDOT’s estimate puts costs for the express toll lane proposal at $655 million and $740 million for the traditionally widening plan.
What happens next
U.S. 69 in Overland Park saw more than 80,000 vehicles a day prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. KDOT officials are already seeing a return to those numbers in 2021, as residents resume in-person work at their jobs.
By 2040, traffic volume is expected to double and travel times triple along the route, according to KDOT.
The Overland Park City Council will take a look at the final proposal in May. A decision is expected by mid-June. It would then go to the Kansas Turnpike Authority Board and then the State Finance Council for approval.
If approved, construction for the project could begin as early as summer of 2022 and be completed by 2025.
KCUR 89.3 is Kansas City’s NPR affiliate public radio station. You can read and listen to more of their reporting at kcur.org.