Johnson County commissioners hoping for quick action on cable barriers along the Kansas 10 median came away disappointed after a meeting with state highway officials. There’s no immediate plan to do anything beyond some extra traffic enforcement by state troopers, they were told.
There was no happier news about the traffic backup problems on Interstate 35 between U.S. 69 and 75th Street either. Highway officials said the state has no plans in the works on that stretch for “the foreseeable future,” but may look into the idea of metering traffic on the entrance ramps.
Officials from the Kansas Department of Transportation met with the Johnson County Commission last week to discuss the commission’s longstanding dissatisfaction with road safety on Kansas 10 to Lawrence. Citing a series of fatal cross-over accidents over the past few years, commissioners have pressed for installation of cable barriers similar to those in Missouri.
The best department officials could promise at the meeting, though, was money to pay overtime for increased enforcement on Kansas 10 through September, plus some advertising aimed to get people to slow down. The median speed on that stretch of road is 79 mph, said Gary Herman, assistant traffic safety manager for the transportation department.
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Commissioners were not pleased with what they heard.
“It’s just hard for me personally to understand how other traffic organizations look to address cross-over accidents but yet the Kansas Department of Transportation looks at it differently,” said Commissioner Jim Allen. “The reality is that almost on an annual basis we end up with some type of cross-over fatality on that stretch of K-10. In my opinion those incidents could have been prevented by cabling.”
Commissioner Steve Klika was no less blunt. “To John Q. Public out there, they really don’t care what the engineering studies say,” he said. “I think we’ve really dropped the ball on this and we’ve allowed the engineering perspective to rule.”
Highway department officials have argued against cable barriers for several reasons. The wider medians in Kansas should allow room for drivers who go off the road to correct before crashing, they have said. Law enforcement doesn’t like the barriers because they limit turn-arounds. Motorcyclists compare the cables to a “cheese cutter” in crashes.
Also, a stakeholders’ study last year of community and law enforcement leaders along the road showed the majority preferred other actions, including more enforcement, a safe driving education campaign and the establishment of a Highway Safety Corridor with increased fines and enforcement.
The safety corridor requires legislative action. That idea has failed in the past and did not get off the ground in the 2015 session.
For now, the highway department is focusing on changing driver behavior, Herman said. They’ve budgeted for more enforcement through September and will focus ads on student populations at Johnson County Community College and the University of Kansas in Lawrence, he said.
There have been 131 tickets issued so far in the program, many in construction zones, he said. But on questioning from Commissioner Michael Ashcraft, Herman conceded that a similar campaign last year didn’t have as much of an effect on speeding as the department would have liked. Speeds dropped one or two miles per hour, he said.
Some at the meeting questioned whether the campaign will be enough. Allen said education and speed traps would have no impact on drivers who fall asleep or lose control in icy weather.
County Manager Hannes Zacharias wondered what would happen when funding runs out in September. He suggested the state add money to expand the bus service on Kansas 10 to Lawrence.
Ashcraft, who used to be comptroller for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, said a similar problem was solved in Oklahoma with a toll system. “If you could toll it, I’m all for it,” he said.
Commissioner Jason Osterhaus asked whether the highway department would look more favorably on barriers if somehow the county could secure funding by working with the statehouse delegation.
Jerome Younger, deputy secretary of the transportation department, said the state would consider it. However, he said he also wanted to respect the wishes of the study group.
Barriers may not be out of the question forever, though. The completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway and improvements on Kansas 7 may put more traffic on Kansas 10, making additional lanes a possibility, said Younger. If extra lanes are added, a concrete barrier will most likely go with them, he said.
There’s no timetable for all of that. Commission Chairman Ed Eilert urged the department to accelerate the additional lanes, if that’s what it takes for a barrier to be installed.
Commissioners also discussed what they said has become a worsening problem of traffic backups on Interstate 35. Howard Lubliner, metro engineer with the department, called the area between 75th Street and U.S. 69 “the most quintessential definition of a bottleneck.”
The state did extensive rebuilding of that section of road, adding tunnels that separated drivers exiting the interstate for 75th Street. That addressed some of the congestion problems, but not all, Lubliner said.
“In doing so, we sort of concentrated the issue even more toward the actual interchange at 75th Street and that bridge,” he said. The problem is that there are eight or 10 lanes north and south of 75th Street, but only six under the 75th Street bridge, he said.
There isn’t any money in the highway budget for fixes on the horizon, however, an answer that did not please some on the commission.
Klika said the changes actually made the traffic worse.
“I really question for a county of this size we’re not a little more expedient to resolve these things and move them forward,” he said. “I understand your budget is being stripped to pay for other priorities in the state and I know it doesn’t help your argument. It makes it difficult for you to come up here and try to tiptoe around this issue and accommodate us in any type of way and I feel for you on that. But my frustration is up there and I’m really disappointed.”
Allen called the bottleneck the worst in the Kansas City area. “This county has the most consistent growth going on in the state of Kansas. If we’re going to produce revenue and jobs we can’t have tens of thousands of drivers taking an extra 10, 15, 20 minutes each day going through that intersection.”
At one point, Eilert offered praise for the highway department’s handling of the massive Gateway project at the nexus of Interstates 35 and 435, saying the contractor has done a good job of keeping traffic moving.
“I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but it’s going to get worse before it gets better this year,” answered Younger.