Some city leaders open to idea of tolled express lanes on SLT as long as existing lanes remain free

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas Highway 10, or the South Lawrence Trafficway, is shown at the U.S. 59 Highway/Iowa Street interchange in this file photo from June 2017.

City leaders indicated they were more open to using tolls to fund the expansion of the western leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway as long as some lanes would still remain free.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission received an update from the Kansas Department of Transportation on the study to expand the western leg of the SLT using both open-access lanes and tolled express lanes. Decisions on whether any portion of the potential expansion will be tolled have yet to be made, but consultants with HNTB, who are working with KDOT on a study for the project, told the commission the tolled expressway was an option they want to consider.

“We don’t want to necessarily preclude at this time how it might look or function in the future,” HNTB Director of Integrated Planning Gretchen Ivy said. “We just wanted to give some ideas of how tolling could be done now that that legislation has changed and see if it might be the right alternative, a good fit, for the South Lawrence Trafficway moving forward as we make its improvements.”

Under changes made to state law last year, only new lanes can be tolled, so the tolled options for the western leg would now need to include at least one lane in each direction that is free to use. The governing bodies of surrounding communities — in this case the Lawrence City Commission, the Douglas County Commission and the Lecompton City Council — have to express interest in creating a toll road in order for KDOT to pursue the option.

Ivy said HNTB and KDOT are currently working on additional traffic and safety analysis for the project to better understand who might use the expressway. But generally, she said it would be expected that the tolled express lanes would be for through traffic, traveling between Kansas City or southern Lawrence and Topeka, and that the free lanes would be used by local drivers. She said if express lanes were added to the western leg of the SLT, they could also be added in the future to the eastern section.

The portion of SLT east of Iowa Street was finished in November 2016, completing the final segment of the long-running bypass project. The eastern leg is a four-lane divided highway, but the leg west of Iowa Street is currently only two lanes. KDOT has been evaluating both a tolled and open-access highway of either four or six lanes for the western leg of the trafficway. KDOT began its three-year environmental impact study on the lane expansion project in September 2018.

Lawrence city leaders have long advocated that the state fund the expansion of the western leg of the trafficway and not make the SLT a toll road, but they voiced those stances before the idea of a tolled expressway that reserves free lanes was proposed. Commissioners’ only action as part of their work session Tuesday was to receive the report, but a few commissioners said they appreciated the additional options being brought forward.

Commissioner Lisa Larsen said it was good to see a third option being developed and that she was looking forward to continuing the conversation and hopefully getting the project done in the near future. Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei said he thinks that maintaining free lanes would make a toll road “a little more palatable,” but that he would be interested to see numbers regarding how that option would affect safety and traffic congestion.

Mayor Jennifer Ananda said she agreed with the comments of her fellow commissioners. She added that she would also want to consider the effects on the road’s safety, especially if the free lanes would be the most heavily used lanes of the trafficway.

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KDOT presented two options for an open-access freeway and two that included tolled express lanes. For the open-access freeway, the options are a four-lane freeway with a grassy median or a six-lane freeway with a concrete barrier.

The first option for the partially tolled highway consists of six lanes, where two of the three lanes traveling in each direction would be designated as express lanes and would require a toll. There would be a concrete barrier between the eastbound and westbound lanes, and the express lanes would also be separated from the free lane on each side by a concrete barrier. The other option consists of four lanes, where one lane traveling in each direction would be designated as an express lane and would require a toll. There would be a grassy median between the eastbound and westbound lanes and a buffer between the free lane and the tolled lane.

KDOT will begin holding virtual meetings this month to collect public feedback on the project, including the new options for a tolled expressway.

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