By Shelia Dunn, NMA Communications Director
On a recent Saturday evening, I spoke at a concerned-citizen Zoom meeting on the planned express toll lanes for US Highway 69 in Overland Park, Kansas. In researching the topic and listening to local residents and commuters, I thought it would be appropriate to write about the difficulty in fighting such a project.
First of all, a little information on Overland Park and Highway 69. This Johnson County city is the second-largest in the state, with close to 191,000 residents. It lies less than 20 miles south of Kansas City, with Highway 69 dividing the city in half. Hwy 69 serves as the central commuter hub to Kansas City proper.
Pre-COVID, 80,000 vehicles traversed the four-lane highway daily between the two cities, and it is currently considered the most congested highway in Kansas. Traffic safety is a concern—the crash rate is 53 percent above the statewide average. Highway 69 has been declared metropolitan Kansas City’s number one road priority.
The state DOT predicts traffic volume will double in the next 20 years. According to Kansas City Magazine, nine in ten Johnson County residents favor Hwy 69 improvements, 62 percent are concerned about travel safety, and 59 percent want travel time predictability.
According to the 69 Express website, KDOT has decided that the best course of action will be to spend anywhere from $550 to $655 million to create express toll lanes or ETLs. The DOT wants to remove the center median and create two new center ETL lanes alongside the four free lanes already present. The agency also plans to modify the various interchanges in the corridor.
State dollars will mainly be used for the project because, after all, it is a state highway. Many have wondered why more has not been done before now to improve Hwy 69. The state of Kansas typically handles road improvements in 10-year periods under its T-Works moniker. The last period ended in 2020. Also, just like many states, Kansas borrowed money from its transportation funds to meet budget shortfalls in other areas. And there was that massive tax cut passed under former Governor Sam Brownback that left many T-Works projects unfinished or unaddressed, such as the Hwy 69 issue.
Overland Park is not obligated to contribute to the project, but KDOT Deputy Secretary Lindsey Douglas said that if the city does, it will move faster. The agency, however, considers the ETL toll as part of the local contribution. The state is suggesting a toll rate of 25 to 33 cents per mile with a small congestion fee tacked on during AM/PM rush hour traffic for good measure.
In 2019, the Kansas Legislature passed a new tolling law stating that:
- Only newly added lanes, not existing ones, can be tolled.
- Tolls collected can be used only to maintain that tolled road. (If increased traffic on surface streets occurs after the toll is implemented, the municipality or county would have to deal with the increased maintenance and repair costs. Local drivers would have to put up with increasing congestion on roads not designed to handle those traffic volumes.)
- Toll projects cannot be implemented without community support.
- Communities may ask the state DOT for further evaluation.
Already Express 69 supporters, including KDOT, have held several community forums. Those who attended the first lightly attended forum just before pandemic restrictions believed that the plan would likely be scrapped since there was little community support.
City council member Dr. Faris Farassati said at the Saturday Zoom meeting that the DOT was not deterred by the lack of community support and has moved forward with pushing the ETL plan. After all, the Hwy 69 ETL project is the state’s top congestion-busting priority (and perhaps revenue priority too).
I have seen this ramrodding before in my work with other local advocates opposing DOT projects, such as road diets and traffic calming. Citizens may express concerns over costs or project implementation, but somehow the state DOT forces a vote by the affected city councils anyway, pushing the project into GO status.
The Overland Park City Council will vote on the Hwy 69 ETL project in June 2021. KDOT is ready to build the ETLs and is applying pressure by insisting that any other plan would take an additional two years to start. The two Overland Park councilmen who attended the Saturday Zoom call seemed to have more questions than answers, and so did I.
- Deep in the 69 Express website is a short paragraph that the ETL would also be used at some point for bus rapid transit, but the councilmen say that this aspect has barely been referenced in any of the discussions with the state. Will the city also have to pay for any new bus transit projects?
- If the community does not want the ETLs, but still wants the highway widened, why couldn’t the same lane expansion design be used without tolling?
- While the proposed toll rate is less than half of the current national average (56 cents per mile), what controls are in place to prevent the state from increasing the tolls or implement much larger congestion pricing tolls in the future.
- Why has the city of Overland Park allowed unfettered zoning in the past that could double the number of vehicles on Hwy 69 in the next 20 years? Would an ETL or even highway widening accommodate such traffic? Is this KDOT figure of the doubling of vehicles on Hwy 69 in 20 years just a scare tactic or an accurate figure?
- One concerned citizen on the call asked if so much more traffic would be traveling on the highway, why was there no budget for noise abatement such as sound-blocking walls? An increase in traffic noise will likely cause property values to decline. Councilman Scott Hamblin said that this is a genuine concern for his constituents. He and Dr. Farassati added that many on the city council don’t care about the noise issue since they and their constituents don’t live near Hwy 69.
The NMA does not support toll roads or user fees intended to limit or ration the use of public roads paid for by all taxpayers. All motorists who pay for roads with their gas taxes should have full access to those roads. Tolling is a stealth tax because not only is it in addition to the gas tax that drivers pay to maintain the roads, it also raises the costs for moving goods, which affects all consumers.
The Hwy 69 express toll lanes project hasn’t been greenlit yet by the state, but indications are that Overland Park drivers will soon be carrying an extra burden.