Johnson County outer loop highway plan builds fresh support

Talk is heating up again about the need for an outer loop highway on the outskirts of Johnson County.

It has been 17 years since Johnson County killed plans for the 21st Century Parkway, a 36-mile loop that would have cut a path linking southeastern to western Johnson County.

But as population continues to push outward into the rural areas of the county, policymakers are renewing talk about the need for a loop road outside Interstate 435.

The topic has reached the highest levels of state government, with Republican Gov. Sam Brownback saying last week he would like to see more serious discussion of such a road.

He said a loop — running from Interstate 70 near Tonganoxie to down near Gardner and then eastward toward Missouri — would help deal with mushrooming population as well as the BNSF intermodal shipping hub being built in Edgerton.

While the idea of an outer loop has been kicked around in the past, Brownback said, the issue needs more attention with the arrival of the BNSF freight yard, which is expected to produce more traffic.

“The thing that changes now is this intermodal facility,” Brownback said.

The outer loop is being examined as part of a state study on the changing transportation demands in Johnson, Wyandotte, Miami, Douglas and Leavenworth counties. The study is expected to be done early next year.

The Johnson County Commission last week sent a letter to the state highway department stressing that any alignment should use as much existing right of way as possible and avoid hurting existing development in Spring Hill, Edgerton, Gardner and Stilwell.

There are no plans to immediately build anything. Money from the state’s current transportation budget has been allocated for major projects, and it generally takes many years to plan a highway of the magnitude that’s being discussed.

“We’re talking 20, 30, 40 years down the road,” Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said. “It’s a concept rather than a firm proposal.”

Eilert said his first priority would be to build a north-south connector on the western side of the county linking I-35 in the south to Kansas 10 and I-70 farther north. He said the north-south road is more necessary because of the BNSF project and development that is likely to occur in the southwest corner of the county as well as in northern Miami County.

The county urged the state to consider the outer loop as a “freeway,” which could cost more than $2 billion to build. The county suggested the state make it a toll road, which might be a hurdle since Kansas law requires that any new toll road has to pay for itself. It’s the reason that Kansas hasn’t seriously considered a new toll road in more than 20 years, and why the law probably would have to change before the toll idea goes anywhere.

The latest discussion come after two failed tries to build a roadway outside the I-435 loop. In 1995, after much public protest, the county killed plans for the 21st Century Parkway. Then about five years ago, the county studied and later set aside the idea of building a parkway connecting Cass and Johnson counties.

While no new highway is imminent, Eilert said now is the time for planning.

“What you should do is make those kinds of long-term judgments prior to development occurring so folks have plenty of opportunity to understand what the future holds,” Eilert said.