Ribbon cut on new U.S. Highway 59; road expected to be open to traffic in early October

The ribbon is cut, and soon — but not quite yet — a new U.S. Highway 59 will dramatically cut the risk of serious accidents for motorists traveling between Lawrence and Ottawa.

Area government leaders joined with officials from the Kansas Department of Transportation on Tuesday to cut the ribbon for an $82 million project to convert the two-lane U.S. Highway 59 through southern Douglas County into a four-lane freeway.

KDOT officials said they expect the road to open to traffic in the first week of October after the final road markings and signs are installed.

“Almost all of us who have grown up in this county or live in this county very long know people who have been injured on this highway,” said Baldwin City Mayor Ken Wagner. “Many of us know people who were killed on this highway. One of the things I want to talk about today is to honor the memory of those friends and neighbors.”

KDOT officials estimated rates of serious crashes on U.S. Highway 59 were about 25 percent more than on other state highways.

The project takes U.S. Highway 59 from a two-lane highway largely devoid of shoulders to a four-lane freeway with interstate-style entrance and exit ramps. The existing Highway 59 largely will remain intact and will be used as a county road.

“This project will give you a greater sense of security as you put your children on the school bus each morning,” said Mike King, secretary of transportation for the state. “It will make the commute between Ottawa and Lawrence less stressful.”

Gov. Sam Brownback was scheduled to attend the ribbon cutting, but stayed in Topeka to host U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on his visit to Kansas.

The project has been in the planning stages since 1998. Construction on rebuilding the Franklin County portion of U.S. Highway 59 began about five years ago. That portion of the road opened two years ago. The 19-mile project — combining both the Franklin and Douglas County portions — totaled nearly $220 million in construction, engineering and right-of-way costs. Federal highway funds paid for a large portion of the project, KDOT leaders said.

When it opens in early October, the entire stretch of U.S. Highway 59 between Lawrence and Ottawa will have a 70 mile per hour speed limit. Area leaders are expecting the road will serve as a quick connection for trucks and other commercial traffic to get between Interstate 70 in Lawrence and Interstate 35 in Ottawa.

“I think this really will open this area up for more economic development,” Wagner said. “If you have good transportation, companies will relocate.”