KDOT's secretary said Wednesday that a new U.S. Highway 59 between Lawrence and Ottawa must be a freeway.
Topeka --The state's top transportation official agreed to ditch plans to relocate U.S. Highway 59 between Lawrence and Ottawa, if city and county officials back plans to upgrade the existing route to a $169 million freeway.
"If it's unanimous (among local governments), or if there is strong support, we're going to" build the freeway along the existing route, Transportation Secretary Dean Carlson said Wednesday.
After months of talk about upgrading the highway, the Kansas Department of Transportation last month announced it preferred to build a new, four-lane freeway about a mile east of the existing road. The decision immediately came under fire from a number of groups, including Douglas County and the cities of Lawrence and Ottawa.
That criticism prompted Carlson to call a meeting Wednesday of elected city and county officials and state legislators from municipalities along the highway.
At the meeting, Carlson announced KDOT's conditional change of heart if the existing road is improved to a limited-access freeway instead of an expressway, and if Lawrence, Ottawa and Douglas and Franklin counties will back the change.
"But if we change it, that's it," he warned. "We've got to get moving on this project."
About 25 elected officials attended the meeting, along with about 30 concerned area farmers and members of citizens groups.
Carlson said improving the existing road to a four-lane expressway is no longer an option because the agency is receiving too much criticism from the Legislature about safety concerns on other expressways in the state.
"Either one of (the alignments) has to be a freeway," he said.
A freeway, complete with interchanges, along the existing route would run about $94 million more than the $75 million KDOT estimated cost for conversion to a four-lane expressway, Carlson said.
Building a freeway on the existing route would mean the loss of 30 homes, Carlson said. Building the highway a mile east would mean the loss of nine homes, he said.
But opponents of the eastern alignment said too much farmland would be taken, and the existing highway would still remain dangerous.
Area officials said they were pleased KDOT was willing to reconsider its preferred alternative, but they said they were disappointed that many questions still are unanswered.
For example, Douglas County Commissioner Tom Taul said he wanted to know what the estimated traffic counts and highway maintenance costs would be on the existing road if a new freeway is built about a mile east.
Carlson promised that information would be forthcoming.
"I think it's perfectly reasonable to ask what kind of bill you're handing over to us," said Douglas County Commissioner Charles Jones.
Carlson also could not answer a question posed by Lawrence Mayor Erv Hodges about either alignment's impact on a possible connecting highway between U.S. 59 and Kansas Highway 10.
Such an extension essentially would serve as the now all-but-dead eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway.
Both Douglas County and the city of Lawrence already have sent letters to KDOT saying they favored improving the existing route.
But Carlson asked officials to again tell him their preferred alignment, given that a freeway now would have to be built on either choice.
Carlson asked for letters from city and county officials by Jan. 15.
"It's going to put a lot of pressure on the county commission in Douglas and Franklin counties, and both cities," Taul said.
"I think we need another meeting with residents in the area," said Franklin County Commissioner Don Waymire.
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