City leaders, the Kansas transportation department and public will convene Monday night in a discussion session that may finally decide what Overland Park should do about daily traffic slow downs on U.S. Highway 69.
Representatives from KDOT will present the pros and cons of widening the road in the traditional way or going to express toll lanes – a traffic flow arrangement used in other cities but not seen yet in Kansas City. They’ll hear from the public, answer questions from the city council and then give their recommendation on which route they think the city should take.
The meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the City Council chambers in City Hall.
The traffic on the U.S. 69 corridor from 103rd Street to 179th Street has increasingly bedeviled Overland Park in recent years as development in the south has added more people to that four-lane. The corridor is now the busiest four-lane in Kansas, said Lindsey Douglas, deputy secretary at the transportation department.
The 10-mile stretch carries 80,000 vehicles a day, with congestion being particularly bad north of 159th Street. Speeds during rush hours routinely drop to 15 miles an hour and the crash rate there is above the statewide average, highway studies show. Moreover, the bridges and pavement are about 50 years old and will be due for upgrades. With the county’s population growth continuing, those problems will only get worse.
City council members, the public and KDOT generally agree the road needs more lanes. The question is how to fund them.
The state highway fund was the well that other agencies dipped into during the budget shortfalls of the 2010s. As a result, projects have been delayed. The troubles on U.S. 69 have made it a top priority with the state, but Overland Park could move it faster by a year or so if it contributes toward the construction, highway officials have said.
Two options are being considered. The first, referred to by state officials as “traditional widening” would add a lane in each direction. The city could contribute towards that or wait a little longer for it to get its turn behind other projects yet unfinished.
The other option is express toll lanes. The state will wait to announce its recommendation after hearing from the council and the public Monday night. But its studies have shown that the toll lanes have several advantages over traditional widening, Douglas said.
With that option, the road would still get a new lane each direction. But all lanes would not be equal. The specially designated express lanes would hug the center barrier. Drivers would access them via electronic transponders. The tolls would vary by time of day, but would likely be between 25 cents and 32 cents per mile.
Either way, highway officials are asking for a $20 million contribution from Overland Park to get things rolling.
Much of the material from KDOT shows advantages to the toll option.
First is they’re cheaper to build, Douglas said. Traditional widening is expected to cost $740 million. Express toll lanes would come in about $85 million cheaper.
That’s mainly because of the extra space needed to build collector streets to handle on-and off-ramps at the interchanges. To keep traffic from stacking up as drivers jockey to the ramps, engineers would need to include collectors that separate the traffic, Douglas said. An example is eastbound Interstate 435, where they divert drivers through a tunnel and eventually to U.S. 69.
But with express lanes, the faster traffic could stick to the middle, allowing less complicated ramp designs that would require a smaller footprint, she said. And that smaller footprint is expected to make less of an environmental impact and cause less upheaval in areas near the interchanges.
Express lanes would also take less time to build, requiring only four construction phases where traditional widening would take nine, according to the KDOT studies.
The revenues from the tolls also would begin paying for the road quicker, Douglas said.
The idea of paying a toll has not been universally favored, however. Councilmember Faris Farassati said he’s been talking to constituents since before the pandemic and they are resoundingly against the idea.
“Nobody likes this idea. No one,” he said. “People want their road without tolls. They feel they’ve already paid for it with taxes.” There’s also a feeling that Johnson County is being asked to pay when other projects in the state are not, he added.
Toll roads should be reserved for projects not on the state priority list, he said, adding that the project would be delayed a year to a year and a half without it. “Why put the toll back on future generations for an insignificant change in the timeframe?” he said.
Others have objected on equity grounds, saying the toll lanes faster commute favors higher-income users.
A survey released June 7 by KDOT sought to explore public feelings about how the road should be improved.
That survey showed almost two-thirds, or 62% said they would use the toll lanes and more than half thought improvements should start within the next two years. Some 54% also said people who use the highway should have the most responsibility for paying for improvements.
The survey did not directly ask respondents to make a choice between traditional widening and toll lanes, but Douglas said more information on that may be available from focus groups. At a meeting with council members in February, a consulting firm said only about a third of participants liked the toll idea.
Council members will take in the presentation Monday and could give staff direction about what information to prepare. The next possibility for council action is at the June 21 meeting. If toll lanes are approved, state officials would still need to sign off before construction could begin.
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