The deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation was in Overland Park Monday to make the state’s pitch for adding an express toll lane on U.S. Highway 69 as a way to address the frequent traffic congestion that’s expected to get worse as southern Johnson County continues to grow.
Why it matters: The presentation by KDOT officials will serve as the basis for the Overland Park city council to discuss which option for expanding U.S. Highway 69 the city will sign on to at its meeting next week.
Lindsey Douglas of KDOT laid out the following options for members of the city council in a lengthy presentation Monday:
- Pursue the express toll lane project. The city’s contribution to the project costs would be covered by tolls charged to motorists who chose to use the express lane. Construction on the express toll lane could begin in 2022 and would be projected to be open for traffic in 2025. Douglas noted that projections suggest approximately 59% of the tolls would be paid by non-Overland Park residents who use the highway lane.
- Pursue a traditional lane expansion project with a city contribution. The city would need to find a way to come up with approximately $20 million to contribute to a traditional widening project, which would create toll-free lanes open to all motorists. This plan would be more expensive and require a much longer construction period. Douglas estimated that it would take eight years of continual construction to complete the first three phases of the project, which would expand the highway from approximately I-435 to 151st Street. Douglas said that if Overland Park put up $20 million, KDOT would allocate an additional $300 million to Phase 1 of the project and put it on the fastest possible timeline.
- Pursue the traditional lane expansion project without a city contribution. The state would still seek to eventually get the U.S. Highway 69 project scheduled, but it would lose priority status. The improvements would likely be made gradually over a period of 15 to 20 years.
What the council heard from residents: Monday’s meeting also included a public hearing that allowed area residents and stakeholders to share their thoughts on the project.
- A number of business advocates and residents expressed their support for the express lane proposal, saying it would be the most cost effective and fastest way to add capacity. Tracey Osborne Oltjen, President & CEO of the Overland Park Chamber, said her organization was endorsing the Express 69 proposal. She said she understood the hesitancy around the idea given that “this option is a first for our region and a first for the state of Kansas.” “Are tolls popular? Of course they’re not,” Osborne Oltjen said. “Neither are taxes. But as we all know these are a cost-effective means when implemented carefully…to acquire the things a community needs.”
- A handful of residents spoke out against the proposed toll idea, saying that it amounted to another burden that will be born by middle class residents of Johnson County, who already pay more than their fair share for state projects.”Kansas already imposes a significant and unfair tax burden on the poor and the middle class, with Johnson County paying the lion’s share of Kansas taxes,” said Michael Keller. “Now Governor Kelly apparently wants to impose another tax, known as a toll, on Kansas workers who use Highway 69 to earn a living. If the toll road is such a great idea, let the residents of Johnson County, maybe even Miami County, vote on it.”
- But others cast the toll as a targeted way to generate the city’s contributions to the project. Greg Musil, an Overland Park resident and attorney who serves as chair of the JCCC Board of Trustees, said that the toll was a kind of “user fee” that generated funds from the people who actually use the road. Musil lamented the fact that former Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration had swept approximately $2 billion from KDOT to balance the state’s budget after he signed a sweeping tax cut bill into law several years ago that caused revenue to plummet.”That money’s gone,” Musil said. “Whether it was right or wrong, and I think it was wrong to do it at the time, it’s not coming back.” Given the realities of KDOT’s current funding, Musil said, the express lane option is the best bet. “We get more bang for our buck and we get it faster with this — and the buck comes from a user, leaving your general fund for city needs, of which there are many,” Musil said.