The wheels of planning start rolling next week for a new stretch of freeway to replace U.S. Highway 59 between Lawrence and Ottawa.
Survey crews will hit the highway Monday, lining up plastic targets along the freeway path to help calibrate aerial photography for use by design engineers. Surveyors will start at Interstate 35 northeast of Ottawa, and work their way north to the Douglas County line.
The project is expected to take four months.
"Weatherwise, this is the ideal time to do it," said Stan Whitley, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Transportation. "It's easier to do it when you don't have the foliage. This is just the opportune time."
The surveying -- to be handled by department employees, on the ground and in the air -- is the first step toward compiling detailed construction documents for the four-lane freeway. Construction of the estimated $210.3 million project is scheduled to begin in spring of 2007, with the road to open for traffic in 2009.
The freeway is expected to be built along a path that generally runs 300 feet east of the existing highway. That's what the Federal Highway Administration decided last month, after compiling an environmental impact statement for the project.
That decision cannot become final until a public comment period expires Jan. 27. Until the agency issues its record of decision, a second option -- building the freeway a mile to the east -- remains in play.
But such uncertainty doesn't worry state transportation officials, Whitley said, because the surveying that starts next week will work no matter which route ultimately gets approved. That's because the first phase of surveying is limited to Franklin County, where a new connection to I-35 is planned; the potential routes split in Douglas County.
Once surveying is complete, engineers can get to work on detailed plans and officials can start working on acquiring land to make way for the road.
"We're not going to be starting construction tomorrow," Whitley said. "Don't be concerned. This is just the initial stage of the project. Technically, it's the start. But as far as seeing actual construction equipment out there, we're still years away."
The new 18-mile freeway is expected to handle U.S. 59's increasing traffic and persistent safety problems.
The accident rate on U.S. 59 is 25 percent higher than on similar highways elsewhere in the state, according to the department.
During a recent five-year period, the stretch averaged an accident every 4.9 days, an injury every 9.5 days and a fatality every 5.4 months.
The new freeway will be expected to cut the rate of fatal accidents by 80 percent and trim the injury-accident rate by 60 percent.