Transportation leaders mull additional interstate loop

A state lawmaker wants the Kansas Turnpike Authority to consider building a new tollway through southern Johnson County, one that would extend an Interstate 470 loop from the turnpike’s new Tonganoxie/Eudora interchange south and east into Grandview, Mo.

The concept “may have legs,” and needs to be seriously considered by the Kansas Turnpike Authority, said Rep. Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, during a recent meeting of the legislature’s Special Committee on Transportation in Topeka.

Whether the legs end up going anywhere is another matter.

“I think Representative Neufeld may be the only one thinking about that,” said Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, an attorney who noted that the concept likely would face even stiffer public opposition than a so-called South Metro Connector project that surfaced — and promptly disappeared — a couple of years ago. “That proposal has no traction at all, in my mind.”

But the idea of running another highway loop west and south of the existing Interstate 435 has at least been a point of discussion among officials from the Kansas Department of Transportation, local governments, hired consultants and others.

Such discussions are considered very preliminary, said Kansas Department of Transportation Secretary Deb Miller, who also is a member of the turnpike authority’s board of directors. But she acknowledges that there is “a great deal of interest, broadly,” in the Kansas City metro area and even into Douglas County for some sort of connection that would involve Kansas Highway 10 and potentially the turnpike.

Model approach?

And the prospect of using tolls, in some form or fashion, to finance such a project is a reasonable enough possibility that her department has asked consultants to develop a model to judge the feasibility of such a financing tool. The model will be part of the 5-County Regional Transportation Study, which is wrapping up its first phase early this year.

Lawsuit ensues over proposed rail hub

Gardner — A coalition of environmental groups and individuals has sued to stop a federal permit that would allow construction of a rail hub in southwest Johnson County.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal court, asking a judge to set aside a permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the proposed BNSF rail yard near Gardner.

The lawsuit contends the corps underestimated various environmental impacts from the proposed hub, which would bring large volumes of truck traffic to the area.

BNSF railroad wants to build a $750 million facility that would allow the movement of goods between trucks and trains.

Hillsdale Environmental Loss Prevention Inc., Kansas Natural Resource Council and five individuals filed the lawsuit.

Tolls wouldn’t be able to finance 100 percent of construction for such a loop, she said, but the state might be able to combine such revenues with taxes or other sources to meet future transportation needs.

“You’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars,” Miller said.

During the committee meeting, Neufeld mentioned that he doubted the turnpike would be interested in pursuing a project that would venture away from the existing toll road.

But with traffic volume increasing in Johnson County, and a planned intermodal distribution complex in the works near Gardner and Edgerton, he said, such possibilities should be considered.

“We are responsible for the total state,” Neufeld said, “not the health of the turnpike board.”

Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, didn’t seem too enthusiastic about the idea of leaning on the turnpike authority for financing.

“It pains me when we go after turnpike to raise revenue for the rest of the state,” he said during the committee meeting.

‘It is not easy’

Michael Johnston, the turnpike’s CEO, noted that a legislative effort to boost turnpike tolls by 25 percent — to finance upgrades for state-owned infrastructure, such as bridges and tunnels and needs on university campuses — failed to get out of committee three years ago.

While the turnpike authority is open to discussing the possibility of tolls being used to help finance construction of highways, he said, folks shouldn’t expect any such projects to speed ahead.

While the turnpike was a “fairly easy” project to plan and build 50 years ago, Johnston said, such highways are far from simple these days.

“The Kansas Turnpike was built in 20 months,” he said. “Think about that for a minute. We can’t even get a sidewalk built today in 20 months. The ability to get major projects built today, the dynamics of that are very different.”

Johnston suspects that a concept for a new highway loop — one connecting the turnpike with Kansas Highway 10 and points south and east — could one day be a possibility, but today it remains far, far from even approaching reality.

Last week, he hadn’t heard of such a project, but said he would be willing to listen to any legislator who wanted to discuss the prospects.

“These major projects like this are extraordinarily expensive, very difficult politically and just take a lot of time to mature,” Johnston said. “It is possible, but it is not easy.”