The long-awaited widening of a busy stretch of road in front of Blue Valley High School appears more likely now that the Johnson County Commission has agreed to spend money on the project.
The one-mile stretch of 159th Street connecting Metcalf and Nall avenues, currently two lanes, would be widened to four lanes with a median. Two traffic circles would be built at the entrances to the high school, said Doug Brown, director of public works for Overland Park.
The roadway also would get sidewalks and streetlights, which it doesn’t have now, he said.
Construction on the $11 million project would begin in late 2015, once the city puts it into its budget this spring.
The project has been near the top of the priority list for Overland Park for at least three years because of the increasing traffic load and safety concerns about the school, he said. The city estimates that more than 10,000 cars travel the road each day, and that number will increase as development continues to the south, Brown said. And a new interchange at 159th Street and U.S.6 9 is expected to bring even more vehicles in the future.
Although the city has long planned to widen that stretch of road, the project has been problematic because of recent changes in state law restricting the abilities of cities to annex land. About a quarter of the right-of-way for the project lies outside Overland Park’s boundaries and on unincorporated county land.
The Kansas Legislature changed annexation rules in 2011, making it more difficult for cities to enlarge their boundaries. Annexations of more than 40 acres now require a public vote and agreement of a supermajority of the county commission.
Before 2011, Overland Park might have simply annexed the road right-of-way and gone ahead with the project on its own dime. But since that option is more difficult, and the residents in that area oppose annexation, the city delayed. Without annexation, the city must get participation of the county and the county’s funds to go ahead with the project.
The commission pledged to spend $2.7 million from the County Assisted Road System funds and another $300,000 to purchase the right-of-way. The CARS funds come from the county’s share of the state gasoline tax plus some additional property tax money.
Some commissioners expressed uneasiness about the decision, saying it might set a precedent in which other cities would approach the commission for money to improve streets that border unincorporated areas. Several such streets needing improvements are on the horizon, including Metcalf Avenue from 159th Street to 167th Street, Lackman Road south of 159th near Heritage Park and the area around the new BNSF intermodal freight facility near Edgerton. Involvement in all those streets could add up, commissioners said.
Also, the county has had to bail out the mental health and sheriff’s departments on their 2013 spending, said Commissioner Steve Klika.
“My concern is that there are very, very limited dollars,” he said. However, he said he had no argument that the improvements are needed.
Ultimately, the commission voted unanimously to spend on the project. But some details are still being worked out. The agreement doesn’t exempt the county from future maintenance on the rights of way it will acquire for the project. That could amount to $10,000 per year, said Chairman Ed Eilert.
Eilert said the county is trying to work out a deal with Overland Park that would exempt the county from those costs, but the county may have to spend an additional $500,000.
Although commissioners worried about the precedent, some said they supported the street widening. “If you want to have good neighbors, you’ve got to be a good neighbor,” said Commissioner Ed Peterson.