KDOT recommends open-access highway for SLT expansion over option with tolled express lanes

photo by: KDOT and FHWA

Plans show the expansion options for the South Lawrence Trafficway recommended by the Kansas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.

The Kansas Department of Transportation and others studying the potential options for the expansion of the South Lawrence Trafficway are recommending an open-access highway as opposed to a partially tolled expressway option.

As part of the study, KDOT and the Federal Highway Administration evaluated several alternatives for the expansion and have determined that an open-access highway best meets the purpose and need for the corridor, according to an announcement this week from KDOT and the FHA. The recommended layout for the expansion would add two lanes to the western leg of the SLT to create a four-lane divided highway, with the ability to expand in the future to six lanes. The recommendation would eliminate the at-grade crossing of the trafficway at 27th Street/Wakarusa Drive and replace it with ramp access, as well as make other changes to existing interchanges.

The recommendation states the evaluation of the options showed that both the freeway and partially tolled expressway options would address capacity and improve safety; however, a traffic analysis indicates there is not enough traffic to support an express toll lane within the next decade.

Specifically, the recommendation states that congestion in the corridor occurs at peak times, early in the morning and in the afternoon, and is most significant at the intersection with 27th Street/Wakarusa Drive and the interchange with Interstate 70. According to the traffic analysis, both alternatives would operate at acceptable levels; however, the analysis indicated that over the next 10 years the traffic volumes on the SLT would remain low enough that very little usage of the express toll lane would be anticipated. The recommendation states that because of the lack of predicted demand for the express toll lane and the cost of the toll equipment, that option was not currently being recommended, but it could be reconsidered in the future if traffic numbers increased dramatically and the community supports that option.

The project team began by studying six initial options for the expansion. The team narrowed those down to three options last year: an open-access freeway, a tolled expressway and a “no action” option — the evaluation of the “no action” option is required by federal law and provides a baseline for comparison.

Changes to state law last year then affected the options for tolled roads. Under the changes, only new lanes can be tolled, so the tolled options for the western leg had to include at least one lane in each direction that was free to use. 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 changes to state law.

Subsequently, in May, some city commissioners indicated more openness to the idea of a partially tolled expressway that reserves free lanes, as the Journal-World previously reported. Members of the project team told commissioners at the time that, generally, 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.

The recommendation also provides information about changes to intersections and interchanges. The ramp interchange at 27th Street/Wakarusa Drive would remove the traffic signal and provide access to the local streets via new interchange ramps. New bridges would carry SLT traffic over Wakarusa Drive, allowing local traffic, pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the trafficway safely. Another recommended change would realign the SLT through the Clinton Parkway interchange to make the existing curve less sharp.

Other recommended changes would reconfigure the interchange ramps at I-70 and the SLT to allow traffic to move easily from the SLT to I-70 and to reconfigure the interchange at U.S. Highway 59. More details about all the recommended changes are available on the project website, slt-ks.org.

It is still unknown when the expansion project will have the funding to move to construction. The state’s transportation plan supports continuation of design and project development for the expansion project, though this week’s announcement states that KDOT cannot commit to a construction timeline at this point and that KDOT will be looking at ways to phase the project and complete improvements in pieces to address safety concerns if traditional funding is unavailable.

KDOT began its three-year environmental impact study on the lane expansion project in September 2018, and it will be completed next year. The draft of the study is scheduled to be released for public comment in October or November of this year.


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