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Archive for Thursday, May 29, 2003

U.S. 59 to move 300 feet east

May 29, 2003

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State and federal transportation officials are expected to announce Friday that a new U.S. Highway 59 connecting Lawrence and Ottawa will be built about 300 feet east of the existing highway.

The alignment for the new $210.3 million freeway is the one recommended by the Federal Highway Administration, but it has been in question because of concerns raised by property owners and others.

"I have no reason to believe they won't approve the recommendation," Jim Brewer, an official with the Kansas Department of Transportation, said Wednesday. "That's the premise we're working under."

Top decision-makers on the project -- Deb Miller, Kansas secretary of transportation, and Mike Bowen, division administrator for the Federal Highway Administration in Topeka -- will preside over an 11 a.m. Friday meeting on a bridge that crosses the highway at the eastern end of the South Lawrence Trafficway to officially reveal their chosen alignment.

The announcement could bring to an end nearly a decade of discussion and disagreement about where and how to build a highway that aims to increase safety and carry ever-increasing traffic loads.

Once the formal "record of decision" is released, engineers can begin drawing formal plans. Survey crews are scheduled to wrap up their work this fall, with construction set to begin in the fall of 2007. The 18-mile freeway is scheduled to open for traffic by the end of 2009.

"It's been a difficult project, but in the end we want to provide the traveling public ... with a safe and efficient highway," said Brewer, whose office oversees planning for some 300 projects statewide. "That's our goal."

The project is designed to improve safety and handle increased traffic between Lawrence and Ottawa. The existing highway's accident rate is 25 percent higher than on similar highways in the state, KDOT says, and the freeway should cut the rate of fatality accidents by 80 percent and trim the injury-accident rate by 60 percent.

KDOT officials initially backed plans for building the freeway about a mile east of existing U.S. 59, but backed off after objections surfaced about the project's anticipated effects on farmland and the environment. Douglas County commissioners soon lined up in favor of the route closer to the highway, saying it would best serve the public despite having to cut through more homes and businesses than the initial plan.

Several opposition groups have argued that the highway should be rebuilt on its current alignment, an option dismissed by transportation engineers as unworkable.

Brewer acknowledged that "anything can happen" when Miller and Bowen make their announcement Friday morning, but he was confident the leaders would stay the course.

"I believe we listened to the people and the process worked," he said. "It won't work for everybody. Some folks will want it one place and some folks will want it in another, but we can't build it both places."

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