The state and city of Overland Park appear poised to move forward with a plan to add express toll lanes going both directions on U.S. 69 Highway south of 103rd Street, after two state-level bodies approved the plan. It’s the first proposal of its kind under a new state law that allows toll lane projects to ease highway congestion. File photo.
With the unanimous approval last month of two state entities, express toll lanes on U.S. Highway 69 in Overland Park have taken a big step toward becoming reality.
Earlier, the toll lane option got the blessing of the city council June 21, on a vote of 10-2. Since then, the Kansas Turnpike Authority and the State Finance Council have added their own approvals, clearing the way for the toll lanes to be added going both directions between 103rd and 151st Streets.
The state bodies’ approval was required by a new Kansas law that allows toll lanes as an option to pay for road expansion.
The project in Overland Park would be the first time that the statute is used to add express lanes as a way to solve a road congestion problem.
As southern Overland Park has grown in recent years, U.S. 69 south of 103rd Street has become the busiest four-lane roadway in Kansas, with regular slow-downs during morning and evening rush hours and a higher than average accident rate.
Here’s a look at some key questions about where the project has been and where it’s going:
What happens next?
- Now that the main decisions on road type and funding have been made, officials can move ahead with environmental and noise studies that need to be done before the machinery moves in.
- An environmental assessment begun last October is expected to be complete later this year. Part of that assessment focus on whether noise levels for the lane configurations meet or exceed federal standards.
- The Kansas Department of Transportation has estimated that construction could begin as early as next summer.
Is it too late to voice an opinion about the toll lanes?
- There will be at least three more public meetings in coming months. That doesn’t include other outreach efforts KDOT officials say they plan to do in order to educate people how the lanes can be used.
- A meeting on the environmental and noise impact is planned for this October. The environmental study will look at the impact in both the natural and human spheres, so that includes not only noise but the impact on users off the road.
- As far as wildlife, trees and vegetation, the Federal Highway Administration will determine if there is any significant impact and how to mitigate it.
- Another meeting will be in February 2022, which is set to focus on right-of-way acquisitions.
- A third public meeting scheduled for May 2022 will be about the beginning of construction.
Why should the city and motorists pay anything at all?
- One of the most frequently raised objections has been that the state and U.S. highway systems are a state and federal responsibility and should be paid by those entities.
- However, at the outset of discussions, KDOT officials told city councilmembers that waiting for state funds to pay for the entire thing would take longer — years, if not more than a decade.
- That’s because the state’s highway fund has been depleted in order to fill budget holes following tax cuts championed by former Gov. Sam Brownback in 2012 and 2013. Those regular raids on KDOT’ funding have caused a major backlog of road maintenance and improvement projects.
- KDOT says putting in local money – in the case of U.S. 69 expansion, about $20 million for the city of Overland Park – ensures that a project that city and business leaders have been talking about for years will be done sooner.
Are there other objections to toll lanes?
- Some skeptics — including Councilmembers Faris Farassati and Scott Hamblin, who both voted against the city’s $20 million contribution — questioned KDOT’s projections for traffic volume and whether the lanes would be used.
- That’s a key part of the plan, because revenue raised by the toll lanes is projected to pay back the city’s $20 million contribution in 15 to 20 years.
- Other critics have said tolls place an unfair burden on lower-income drivers and could create inequalities between drivers who can afford to use the toll lanes and those who can’t.
- KDOT officials have quote other studies that say opinions on toll lanes don’t differ significantly between low- and higher-income users.
- And according to some studies, all groups of drivers appreciate the choice of whether to use toll lanes. Toll lanes’ schedule and flexibility of use had more bearing than income on whether they were used, one study concluded.
Why did the council okay the toll lanes?
- For the councilmembers who supported it — including Council President Curt Skoog, who along with Farassati, is running for mayor this year — getting the long-discussed project started was often mentioned as a reason to approve it.
- Councilmember Paul Lyons said without the tolls, the council would have had to choose between several other options to pay the city’s share, including borrowing the money and paying it back with interest, depleting the city’s reserve fund, cutting other budgeted items or raising the mill levy. The toll lanes, instead, put the risk on the state to collect the local contribution, he added.
- There was another reason the council generally supported the toll lanes plan: KDOT officials said just simply expanding the highway with toll-free lanes would end up being significantly more expensive because of the different traffic flow patterns involved.
- Toll lanes on the inside of the road, KDOT officials said, would separate thru traffic from people jumping on and off the toll lanes, moving traffic more efficiently.
- Having three equal, toll-free lanes would mean other side roads would have to be added near interchanges to separate cars entering and leaving the main highway.
Were other alternatives discussed?
- Other ideas that were considered included capacity management strategies like ramp metering, promotion of car pooling, bus-on-shoulder, park and ride and other transit expansions like light rail and more bike and pedestrian options.
- Highway officials also looked at the possibility of improving surrounding streets like Metcalf Avenue, Antioch Road and Switzer Street to handle more traffic.
- HOV (high occupancy vehicle lanes, also known as car pool lanes) that restrict lane use to vehicles with more than one passenger, haven’t performed as well as toll lanes in relieving congestion in other metro areas, said Lindsey Douglas, deputy secretary of KDOT.
- Those options all would have required local investment. Ultimately, the city and transportation officials boiled the final choice down to express toll lanes or a regular widening without tolls.
Do residents want this?
- That depends on who you ask. Many people opposed to toll lanes say the idea is deeply unpopular with everyone they know.
- Highway officials conducted a survey in May. The survey indicated that a majority of respondents thought the road should be paid for by users and construction should be expedited, lending credence to that toll lanes have support.
- Over a third of survey respondents said they would use the toll lanes, which is ideal considering the new lanes will account for a third of the road capacity, Douglas said.
- The more detailed survey results, however, did not include a direct comparison between support for toll lanes and support for a toll-free expansion. But Douglas said support was strong in focus groups, with 55% of residents supporting toll lanes over traditional widening when they were aware of the pros and cons.
Will money from a federal infrastructure bill make the toll lanes go away?
- No, the massive $715 billion INVEST in America Act recently passed by the U.S. House (and still needing to be reconciled with the Senate) would directly impact another part of U.S. 69 improvement.
- The $15 million for U.S. 69 the measure allocates specifically targets the interchange at 167th Street.
- The state would be expected to match another $15 million on top of that, moving that particular part of the construction timeline up a bit, but the toll lanes between 103rd and 151st would still be funded through a combination of state and city money.