End of the road for ‘silent killer’

Groundbreaking ceremony marks start of construction for new U.S. Highway 59

The end is in sight for a highway some call “the silent killer.”

At a rural intersection three miles north of Ottawa, ground was broken Wednesday to mark the start of construction on a new U.S. Highway 59.

The four-lane highway will connect Ottawa and Lawrence and should be completed in 2011. It will be safer than the narrow two-lane highway that has existed since the 1920s, said Deb Miller, secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation.

“We simply did not have a worse two-lane road in the state of Kansas, in my opinion, and I’m so pleased that we are embarking on finally improving this road to the highest safety standards,” Miller said.

The new highway will have seven interchanges and cost a total of $240 million, Miller said. About 10,000 vehicles a day use the old highway and that number will increase dramatically on the new one, she said.

“A project like this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of time and effort to get to this point,” Miller said.

Miller and other KDOT representatives, as well as about 40 people from Franklin and Douglas counties, attended the ceremony at the intersection of Reno and Montana roads. Franklin County Commissioner Sue Ferrell and Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson were among those in attendance.

Johnson compared the groundbreaking ceremony to a mountain climbing expedition.

“What people want to hear is what we say at the top of the mountain, knowing full well we can’t get to the top without taking the first step,” he said.

A few miles north of the ceremony, just east of U.S. 59, a road grader and bulldozers were already clearing ground. The first phase of the construction is grading and bridge work from Interstate 35 northeast of Ottawa to the Douglas County line, a distance of seven miles.

Bids for surface work in Franklin County will be opened in December 2008. In Douglas County, grading and bridge work covering 11 miles is tentatively scheduled to be let in November 2008 and surfacing in June 2010.

State and local leaders expect the new highway to spur economic development in Ottawa and Lawrence.

“The phrase, ‘if you build it, they will come’ proved to be true for I-35 and most likely it will for 59 Highway as well,” Ferrell said. She said it would put Ottawa on target for economic development.

The new highway required the state to purchase dozens of properties, displacing residents who were living along the new highway’s path. Miller said choosing the highway’s route was difficult.

“I agonized over the choice because of the impact it was going to have on residents,” she said. “I think we made a good choice.”

In Franklin County, 46 land tracts were obtained for the highway, said Howard Lubliner, KDOT road designer. In Douglas County, 25 of 111 tracts have been obtained.

Among those watching the ceremony was C.T. Taul, who has lived near the intersection of U.S. Highways 59 and 56, also called Baldwin Junction, since 1942. Taul is giving up 8 acres for the highway project but will continue to live nearby.

“We had a little bit of our own community at the junction,” Taul said.

Taul also said he was staying on his farm because he likes the rural area.

“I’m a nature lover,” he said.

The effort to get a new highway began 15 years ago when Franklin County representatives approached the state about getting something done about what they referred to as a silent killer, said Tom Weigand, president and chief executive officer of the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce.

“I can think of several that I personally knew who died on that highway,” Weigand said.

In just the past five years, there were four fatal accidents resulting in six deaths on the highway between Lawrence and Ottawa, according to KDOT. During that same time there were 127 people injured in 77 accidents.