Archive for Wednesday, December 4, 2002

Preferred U.S. 59 route announced

December 4, 2002

In a surprise announcement Tuesday, the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) jointly said the newest "preferred alternative" for a new U.S. Highway 59 is 300 feet east of the present U.S. 59.

Up until Tuesday's announcement, the "preferred alternative" had been a four-lane freeway a mile east of the present U.S. 59. The process to address safety issues on the current two-lane U.S. 59 has stretched on for years with studies, public hearings, etc.

Now it appears that the option 300 feet east of the current highway will be chosen. Technically, there is a public comment period from now until Jan. 24, 2003 and then it's expected that the FHWA will make a Record of Decision (ROD) shortly thereafter.

But, KDOT spokesman Marty Matthews admits it would take "something pretty substantial" for another change to be made in the ROD.

"You know the joke about it ain't over until the fat lady sings. She isn't singing, but she's warming up," said Matthews. "We have gone in such detail with this whole process, that it would take something major that's been over looked to change it.

"It's not officially a done deal until the Record of Decision," he said. "But it would take something substantiate to change it. I hate to say never, but it's unusual for a decision to be changed at this stage."

The "preferred alternative" will cost an estimated $210.3 million and displaces 33 homes and eight businesses. The alternative a mile east of U.S. 59 would cost $199.4 million and displace 11 homes and two businesses.

However, the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that was released Tuesday (and is available at the Baldwin City Public Library for review) takes into account several factors. The route 300 feet east of U.S. 59 would avoid areas where two threatened plant species either are known to exist or are likely to exist, according to Mike Bowen, division administrator for the FHWA's Kansas region.

Matthews also said another factor was that by building the new road just east of the present highway, it is believed that more traffic will use the new freeway instead of continuing to utilize the present U.S. 59.

As for the funding of the road, Federal dollars are involved. With the current budget reductions going on in the state, it is unknown what will happen to highway projects. The new "preferred alternative" is more expensive and the project is a priority because the present U.S. 59 has 25 percent more accidents than other similar highways.

"The one we selected costs more," said Matthews. "But, you have to remember those are just estimates and are subject to change. The overall budget question is one we won't know until the Legislative session ends in May. Right now we have the funding for the project, but that could change.

"This is certainly a high priority project that we would like to see done," he said.

Matthews also said that comments can be made in writing from now until Jan. 24, 2003, by addressing them to Carl Hill, Public Involvement Liaison, KDOT, Docking State Office Building, 7th Floor, 915 SW Harrison, Topeka, KS, 66612. He said that people simply stating they don't like the "preferred alternative" won't do much to sway the decision. But, comments are encouraged.

"That's the whole purpose for the comment period," he said. "Obviously there have been changes made during this process. Pitching a fit won't help. Substantiate argument could have an effect."

He also emphasized that this was not a KDOT-only decision and the FHWA has been involved all the way.

"This has been a process of working through this together all the way," said Matthews. "It's been a collaboration between us and Federal highways. There was no bright shining star that said 'this is the one.'"

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