STERLING — A group of central Kansas farmers is in favor of expanding Kansas 96 to a divided four-lane highway that would better accommodate oversized freight traffic and boost growth in the area.
But about 30 of them have sent a letter to the state Department of Transportation asking that a different route between Sterling and Nickerson be developed to lessen its impact on irrigated farmland.
“We’re not opposed to it happening,” Rice County farmer John Engelland said Thursday at a Transportation Department forum in Sterling. “We just hate to see it go through so many irrigated acres.”
The department displayed maps with two proposed routes at the meeting and had consultants on hand to answer questions from area residents. Although no money has been earmarked for the roughly 15-mile corridor in northern Reno and southern Rice counties, the state is looking at the expansion to increase safety and efficiency on that stretch of highway.
Many of those who attended the meeting were concerned about the potential loss of irrigated land and limited accessibility to farmland because of the project.
Engelland said farmers have irrigated fields in that area for more than 50 years and there has been no decline in the water table or to water quality. He said the next generation of young farmers is committed to that land, where mostly corn and soybeans are grown.
Dennis Clennan, a part-time consultant with the Salina engineering firm Wilson and Co., said that while a route farther to the east might have less impact on irrigated acres, it would be more expensive because of the cost of extending utilities to the planned interchanges near both Nickerson and Sterling.
That would discourage support for the project, he said, and dampen the potential for economic development near the interchanges.
About 30 homes would be within the corridor or adjacent to it, but Wilson and Co. Vice President Troy Eisenbraun said that does not mean all of those residences would have to be moved. He said avoiding residences was one of the main goals during preliminary planning.
Farmers didn’t much like the second of the two options, either, which isn’t much different from the first.
The Transportation Department plans to conduct another public hearing this fall to present its preferred route. If built today, the project would cost an estimated $126 million.