Speakers from Finney, Hodgeman, Scott and Seward counties stood before state senators and representatives and their colleagues on the 2018 Joint Legislative Transportation Vision Task Force Thursday, outlining perpetual safety concerns on U.S. Highway 50, Kansas Highway 156, and U.S. highways 83 and 54, and calling for improvements.

The meeting, which also includes representatives from the Kansas Department of Transportation, Kansas counties and cities, Union Pacific Railroad and organizations regarding engineering, construction, contractors and economic development, was the sixth in a series of task force events since August, at least one in each KDOT district, that provide updates and platforms for community input across the state.

At the end of November, the task force will meet for a final time in Topeka to put together a complete report to submit to the Legislature, which, once approved, will be sent to KDOT for review and action, said Rep. Richard Proehl, a task force co-chair. Until then, they’re eager for public feedback.

“We really want to hear from the local people ... The morning part of these meetings could be held anywhere, but we want to hear what everybody out in the communities have to say,” Proehl said.

Co-chairs Sen. Carolyn McGinn and Proehl presided over the nearly 25 task force members present, all gathering at tables on stage in the Garden City High School auditorium Thursday morning and afternoon.

Following a presentation on traffic safety from KDOT and Kansas Highway Patrol representatives and a task force discussion about their top concerns, goals and processes moving forward, the group took time to hear from local and regional officials and citizens.

Many speakers opened with gratitude to the state for accepted or completed projects, such as agreements that help fund highway maintenance in Garden City and Finney County or improvements in rail or air travel, but addressing concerns for drivers and locals’ safety, particularly regarding students, and the region’s economic development.

Finney County Commissioner Lon Pishny pointed to improvements on highways, specifically reinstating “postponed projects” to expand US-50/400 between Dodge City and Cimarron into a four-lane highway and add right of way and passing lanes to U.S. 83 between Liberal and Garden City.

The county also supported continued efforts to develop four lanes on US-50/400 from Cimarron to Garden City and on U.S. 400 from Dodge City to Mullinville, ultimately stretching to Wichita, passing lanes and right of way on U.S. 83 from the Oklahoma border to I-70 and a possible northeast and southeast bypass surrounding Garden City, Pishny said.

Rozelle Webb, the CEO of the Liberal Chamber of Commerce, echoed some of Pishny’s thoughts, addressing the need for four-lane highways on U.S. 54, not only from Wichita to Mullinville, but also from Mullinville to Liberal, as well as passing lanes on U.S. 83 from Liberal to Garden City. As someone who lost three family members to a car accident on the road, she said she was committed to the regional roads’ safety.

No shoulders, sharp drop-offs and narrow highways meant drivers had nowhere to go if an oncoming vehicle swerved into their lane or if a driver needed to pull over, speakers said.

“You might recognize some of the people in our group, we’ve been sharing our concerns for the last 30 years...” Lee Ann Seiler, the Economic Development Director in Hodgeman County, told the task force. “I could come today and present testimony about the narrowness of Highway 156 as a deterrent to economic progress in the region, or how dangerous it is for our travelers and tourists who aren’t used to driving on highways with no shoulders, but I’ve chosen instead to focus on something even more important: the safety and well-being of our most precious resource, our children and families.”

Seiler advocated for wider shoulders on K-156, and said she had taken photos of her young daughter’s shoes squeezed between the edge of the lane and edge of the pavement to illustrate the lack of space drivers deal with. Especially with the frequent semis or oversize load vehicles hauling wind turbine parts using the road, she said drivers needed “wiggle room” for safety.

“This is nothing new. What is new is we’re tired of being put off and told that this is a high priority and will be rectified as soon as funds allowed — that it’s in the plan. We think it’s time, to add shoulders to Highway 156,” she said.

Several representatives from Scott City and Scott County asked for the construction of passing lanes on multiple stretches of U.S. 83 between Scott City and Garden City, easing roads congested with commuters and haulers and reducing the need for unsafe passes into oncoming traffic.

Several speakers, from citizens to area leaders to school district officials, addressed how the roads were specifically unsafe for school buses, a constant concern of parents and family members who experience “near-misses” on the highways. Elton Argo, superintendent of USD 438 Kismet-Plains, suggested left turn lanes, acceleration lanes and passing lanes on U.S. 54 from Meade to Seward County.

Other speakers addressed the impact unsafe or unkept roads had on the area’s economic development.

Webb said all businesses rely heavily on roadways, and safer roads meant it was easier for travelers and tourists to visit and shop in the area. Upgrading U.S. 54 and 83, she said, would greatly impact Seward County for the better.

Tyler Kough, president of the Scott County Development Committee, said investing in better highways would attract drivers to use the roads and move through the area.

“We contend that your investment will pay dividends. Passing lanes will pay dividends and safer and more efficient traffic flow. Passing lanes will provide dividends by encouraging heavy and wide load transports to prefer traveling on U.S. 83, whether moving commodities from Scott City to Garden City, or exports from Canada to Mexico,” Kough said.

Other testimonies had been submitted to the task force in writing ahead of time, including such from Scott County USD 466, the Scott Cooperative Association, the Scott City Area Chamber of Commerce, Scott County Board of County Commissioners and the City of Scott City regarding U.S. 83, and the Seward County Emergency Medical Services, City of Liberal, Seward County Community College, Seaboard Foods and the City of Kismet regarding U.S. 54, the Edwards County Extension Executive, Ford County Executive Board and Parker-Haskins Insurance, Inc. regarding U.S.-50/56, among others, according to the meeting’s agenda.

McGinn and Proehl said they were glad to hear from Southwest Kansas, with McGinn noting how different regions and different industries in those regions change the conversation representatives hear at each meeting. Regardless, there were problems McGinn said communities mentioned across the state.

“I think it’s very important that we look at, at the very basic, we need to look at shoulders and, perhaps, some turn lanes … Safety is important no matter where you live in the state of Kansas, and economic development is important no matter where you live in the state of Kansas. And I think that those are the top two things that we need to take a look at,” McGinn said.

Addressing all areas of the state is important, both said, but McGinn said the task force would still need to consider population, including the congested roads born out of a booming population in Johnson County.

“We have to set it up where it’s fair … And that’s going to be one of the toughest parts of our job, to try to set priorities for all parts of the state,” Proehl said. “Money seems to gravitate to metropolitan areas, and we’ve seen that in all of the plans and it will still probably, to some degree, do that. But we still have to see that we take care of the rural needs also.”

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.