Rick Potter/Submitted
Wayne White | Managing Editor

LYNDON—Osage County residents appeared unified in support for improvement of two highways in the county during a public meeting last week at the Osage County Courthouse.

Citizens were invited to the meeting to express opinions on improvement projects proposed for state Highway 31 east of Osage City and U.S. Highway 75 from Carbondale to Lyndon. The two projects were selected from 175 projects proposed, and identified in the top tier of 25 projects, following Kansas Department of Transportation’s 2009 local consultation meetings. The projects are proposed as for possible inclusion in the 10-year, $8.2 billion T-Works program approved by Kansas Legislature in May.

Initially, $1.7 billion is to be spent on major highway expansion and modernization projects, with $500-$800 million spent in the northeast region of the state. Funding for the projects is not expected to be available until 2013.

The K-31 project, representing seven miles of the example package, is estimated to cost $13 million, and would add shoulders to the highway from Osage City to the K-31/U.S. 75 junction. The U.S. 75 project would create 13 miles of either a four-lane freeway or expressway at a cost of $84 million or $66 million, respectively.

Osage County Commissioner Mike Pruitt told the approximately 50 people gathered in the courtroom Sept. 29 that “we’re here to gather concerns of the citizens” and that input would be presented during another regional local consultation meeting Oct. 22 at Kansas City.

“It’s important for communities to get together behind these projects,” said Clay Adams, KDOT District 1 engineer.

He said the amount of funds is limited and KDOT is prioritizing projects that will have regional economic benefits.

“The ones that will get selected will affect a region,” Adams said.

He said Osage County and its communities “have done the right things up to this point,” by setting up last week’s meeting and having representatives at the previous local consultation meetings.

“You’ve got your projects in the hat, so to speak,” he said. “The next step is to show public support remains for these projects.”

He said projects should be selected by spring to allow time for engineering. Selected projects will be constructed between 2013 and 2020.
“Having two projects in Osage County make the list is fantastic,” said Osage City Manager Nick Hernandez.

Hernandez attended the meeting with a large contingent of Osage City residents, business owners, and council members, most who expressed support for widening K-31 to improve safety along the seven-mile stretch.

That support was echoed by state Sen. Anthony Hensley and state Rep. Willie Prescott.

“I agree about Highway 31,” Hensley said. “I think it’s imperative the people of Osage City have a safer highway leading into town.”

Prescott said he and Hensley would be lobbying Kansas Transportation Secretary Deb Miller to fund the Osage County projects.

“Whatever needs to be done, we’re going to do,” Prescott said.

Most of those speaking at the meeting agreed K-31 needed safety improvements.

“I invite anyone to come help me change a tire on (Highway) 31,” said Scott Farmer, an Osage County deputy.

Osage County Sheriff Laurie Dunn said any incident that happens along that highway requires extra personnel at the scene to direct traffic.
“I have real concerns over 31 Highway,” she said.

Wide loads on the highway also impede traffic, noted Quintin Robert, mayor of Osage City and president of local house manufacturer KanBuild.
“We take a house down (Highway) 31 every week,” Robert said.

Casey Mussatto, of beer distributor Mussatto Brothers, Inc., said his trucks travel 250,000 miles annually, including the stretch on K-31.

“That seven miles scares me more than any other highway,” Mussatto said.

Mussatto also said the highway turns away potential business recruitment for the city.

“We’ve got an attitude for growth, but we’ve got a terrible highway,” he said.
Stephanie Watson, Osage County economic development director, said the K-31 project fit the criteria for selection in the highway program.

“We can easily demonstrate on (Highway) 31, safety and economic development,” Watson said.

In discussion of U.S. 75 improvements, safety issues were also highlighted, with Dunn saying most accidents on that highway occur north of Lyndon, in the stretch proposed for improvement.

A consensus about which improvements should be made to U.S. 75 was not as evident, though.

Hernandez spoke about the possibility of adding passing lanes to the two-lane stretch of U.S. 75 as a way to save money for the state.

“The cost of a four-lane road is significantly higher than passing lanes,” Hernandez said. He added that passing lanes would require less right of way acquisition and also lessen congestion on the highway.

Hernandez said that constructing a new bridge over Dragoon Creek to accommodate a four-lane road would cost more than the entire proposed K-31 project. After the meeting, KDOT officials confirmed that construction of a new bridge was included in the U.S. 75 cost estimates.

Farmer said he was opposed to passing lanes because drivers did not know how to use them.

“If you’re going to do it, a four-lane is the way to go,” Farmer said.
All seemed in agreement that economic benefits could be achieved with either project, but U.S. 75 would have more regional impact.

“I think the U.S. 75 project is a project that affects Kansas,” Hensley said.
Other speakers expressed concern about the amount of right of way that would be needed for the U.S. 75 project.

“I can’t support something if you can’t tell me where you’re going to put it,” said Scott Hamlet, of Lyndon.

Adams said the projects would not be designed until they are selected and he could not answer questions about rights of way.

Adams wrapped up the meeting noting that support from businesses, communities, school districts, and citizens will help the ranking of the Osage County proposals, specifically pointing to the economic benefits discussed.

“That kind of information would set that project out ahead,” Adams said.
Watson and Pruitt are to compile the comments and information collected during last week’s meeting and present it during an Oct. 22 local consult meeting in Kansas City.

According to Kimberly Qualls, KDOT public information officer, attendees of the local consult meeting will be randomly assigned to breakout groups, which will rank the projects. That list will be presented to KDOT staff for final selection before spring.

She said the selection process being implemented is different than that done in the past, and has encouraged regional outlook.

“We’ve seen a lot of counties and cities working together,” Qualls said last week. “It’s great because it’s bringing people together to discuss regional impact. That’s something we don’t usually see.”

The public is welcomed and encouraged to attend the local consult meetings, although KDOT officials said the amount of a region’s representatives will not affect the outcome of the meetings.

The northeast region meeting at Kansas City will be 9 a.m. to noon Oct. 22, at the National Guard Armory, 100 S. 20th St.