OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Commuters who travel on U.S. 69 in Johnson County, Kansas, know that traffic can be dense depending on the time of day.
Those commuters may not know that U.S. 69 is the busiest four-lane highway in the state of Kansas.
41 Action News morning anchor Taylor Hemness went for a morning rush hour ride with Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach to talk about the options for helping the flow of traffic - including adding tolled express lanes to make that drive move a little faster.
Heading northbound on U.S. 69, there were several slow spots during the Monday morning ride with Mayor Gerlach, including areas that required an almost complete stop.
Gerlach hears about the traffic congestion regularly from Overland Park residents.
"They say, please do something about it," Gerlach said.
Gerlach called the expansion of U.S. 69 the city's top priority in his 2020 State of the City Address. His speech and presentation even included an appearance from Kansas Secretary of Transportation Julie Lorenz.
"It gets a grade of an ‘F,’” Lorenz said during the presentation.
But an “F” grade doesn't happen overnight.
In the last 20 years, Gerlach said Overland Park has invested more than $60 million in U.S. 69-related projects.
In 2010, when Kansas began its current road improvement plan, called “T-Works,” Kansas Department of Transportation officials said U.S. 69 had a "D" grade. But the highway wasn't on the list of projects covered under that bill.
Now, the state's new transportation program, “Forward,” is likely to include U.S. 69. At this time, that program hasn't passed through the state legislature.
Gerlach said the waiting game could be a threat to Overland Park.
"We don't want them (OP residents) to have to say, ‘I don't want to move, but I have to because of traffic.’ That is what we are trying to stop," Gerlach said.
The plan to fix U.S. 69 is massive: A projected $300 million price tag. Adding a pair of toll lanes is one possible option to help finance the project.
If that happens, drivers would have the option of using Kansas's first express lane on U.S. 69. Express lanes are already in use in other states, including Colorado and Texas.
"Likely, they would be in the inner lanes,” Overland Park City Engineer Lorraine Basalo said. “And what it really is, it turns out to be a choice that residents can make on whether or not they want to use those express lanes, to decrease their travel time.”
During the State of the City Address, Gerlach and Lorenz used Colorado's express lanes as an example of what U.S. 69 could eventually become.
One of Colorado’s several express lanes is on U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder. Much like U.S. 69 between Overland Park and Kansas City, Missouri, Highway 36 is used by thousands of people commuting for work.
Colorado's Department of Transportation said traffic on all lanes of that highway are moving 20 to 29 percent faster than they did before the express lane was built.
The cost to enter that express lane would vary depending on several factors, including time of day.
The cost would be higher during high-usage times, like the morning and evening commutes, and lower in the middle of the day. There would not be toll booths along the highway, because there are several other ways to collect the tolls.
The other four lanes of U.S. 69 would not require a toll to use.
That’s why KDOT Deputy Secretary Lindsey Douglas said using express lanes is all about personal preference.
"I drive that corridor every day,” Douglas said. “And one day when I was stopped in traffic, I kind of leaned over to the center and took a picture, and thought, 'I'd pay a toll to get out of this.'"
Douglas said under the proposed state transportation plan, cities have options about how and if they want to contribute funds to a project. An express lane could mean U.S. 69 sees improvement much faster, and by state law, all the money from that lane, stays in that lane.
"If Overland Park is looking at an express lane as their contribution to the project, there wouldn't be any needed up-front investment,” Douglas said. “They would get credit for that toll once the facility is open, and it can go to paying down the construction for that project."
Just days after Gerlach’s presentation at the State of the City address, Overland Park City Council members Dr. Faris Farassati, Scott Hamblin and Gina Burke hosted a public forum on the expansion of U.S. 69.
Opinions on the future of the project were mixed.
“I was probably in the minority,” Mary Coffman, an Overland Park resident who attended the forum, said. “I don't have a big issue with express lanes. I think the people that use them would pay for them, instead of taxing everyone in the city who may not use those express lanes to pay for it.”
Gerlach stressed adding toll lanes to U.S. 69 isn't the only option, and if people don't want it, the city won't push for it.
But, he sayid, Overland Park can't afford to see what a grade lower than "F" looks like.
"In the next 20 years, the traffic's going to double,” Gerlach said. “And the speeds are going to slow down three times slower than they are now. And those are the results that we're trying to stop from happening."
The first feasibility study, which KDOT described as a "back of the envelope calculation," was paid for by the State of Kansas and Overland Park at a cost of $65,000 each.
Those findings will be presented at the Overland Park City Council meeting on Monday, March 16.
Based on that meeting, the city could call for a second, much more detailed study, which would take 12 to 18 months to complete. That study would include, among other things, environmental studies, and public input on the cost and validity of the project.