The notion of paying a toll to use designated express lanes on U.S. Highway 69 will take some selling before it’s widely liked by Johnson County motorists.
That’s according to focus groups held by the engineering firm studying potential solutions for one of Kansas’ most congested highways.
Only about a third of focus group participants said they liked a proposal to use tolls to help pay to expand the capacity of U.S. 69 in Overland Park. Others said they’d like to see the traffic flow improved, but would rather other types of taxes be used to add lanes.
Overland Park city councilmembers met in committee Monday for an update on the proposal that is being studied as a possible cure for unpredictable travel times and a higher-than-average crash rate on the stretch of road from 103rd Street to 179th Street.
Frustration with state
Councilmembers themselves also expressed some skepticism for the toll plan presented by the Kansas Department of Transportation. In a limited question session, two councilmembers pointed out that U.S. 69 is a state highway and as such is the state’s responsibility.
They said the highway has aging bridges and pavement and its design is badly in need of an upgrade to handle current traffic loads.
“We’ve been asking for the state – it’s their highway – to act for ten years. So now there’s folks in the public that want to blame this council,” said Councilmember Jim Kite.
Councilmember Curt Skoog also asked why the state highway department has not done more to improve the road during the past decade.
But highway funds have been limited, said Lindsey Douglas, deputy secretary at KDOT.
The state has normally done road improvements in 10-year periods, the last of which ended with T-Works last year, she said. Borrowing from transportation funds to meet budget shortfalls became common during previous administrations — a result of massive tax cuts passed under former Gov. Sam Brownback.
That left many of the projects planned for T-Works unfinished and still needing to be addressed before beginning new road expansions, like on U.S. 69.
Cities are not obligated to contribute, but doing so could move the project faster, Douglas said.
“We have been very aware of the need on this corridor the declining pavement and wish we had more revenue to be more proactive on some of these corridors and bridges. We’ve got a lot of needs across the state and we just don’t have all the revenues we need to address them,” Douglas said.
Congestion only expected to get worse
KDOT has been studying a proposal to expand the highway from four lanes to six by adding express toll lanes where the median is now.
Northbound and southbound lanes would be separated by a concrete barrier and there would be about four feet of buffer space between the proposed express toll lanes and the free lanes.
As Overland Park has expanded southward, so has congestion along U.S. 69.
By 2040, traffic volumes are expected to double and travel times triple along the route, according to KDOT.
The road carries about 80,000 vehicles a day and serves as the transportation spine of Overland Park, said Cameron McGown, project manager for HNTB engineering. Crash rates on U.S. 69 are about 53% above the statewide average, he said, averaging out to about one crash per day.
Variable speeds have also made the road more dangerous. Average speeds are less than 30 miles per hour during the morning peak and can vary from less than 10 miles per hour up to 65 miles per hour during evening rush, a KDOT analysis said.
Details of toll proposal
The project team has been surveying residents and getting input from virtual open houses and focus groups for the past couple of months.
A large majority of respondents want the traffic problems to be solved and the route to be safer, McGown said. Some said they could eventually come to accept the toll, but only about a third actually liked the idea.
It is estimated that building the entire project would cost $550 million. If the idea gets approval, ground could be broken as early as summer of 2022 and finished by 2025.
Express toll lanes would charge motorists variable rates depending on how busy the road is at any given time. Drivers would learn the rates from digital signs as they approach the express lane.
There would be neither a toll booth nor a way to pay with cash. Instead, the toll would be recorded electronically for each driver choosing to use the lanes and payments would be made through K-Tag or identification of license plates.
Some of the finer details – such as the toll amounts – have yet to be worked out.
The city would also have to decide whether to end the tolls at some point after expenses are covered or continue them as a way to manage traffic flow, KDOT deputy secretary Douglas said.
The toll plan is possible because of a 2019 state law that allows tolls to be used to help fund new highway lanes. If approved, the Overland Park toll lanes would be the first of their kind in the state.
More about the proposal can be found at this website.