Expanding K-96

Oct. 2, 2023
How Kansas is setting the project up for success

By Alex Perry, Contributing Author

Wichita, Kan. has a congestion problem, and the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) has launched a massive expansion project as a solution.

Each day, 50,000 vehicles travel on Kansas State Highway 96, commonly referred to as K-96, in Wichita, between Interstate-135 and the turnpike. That number is expected to double by 2050. 

K-96 is a vital freeway in Wichita. Expanding this corridor using emerging technology, as well as a diverging diamond interchange pattern, should improve travel times and accommodate future growth.

The K-96 Improvement Project, which was announced last year, is scheduled to finish preconstruction work by 2025, with ground being broken the following year. This is a story about how KDOT has navigated design phase to set the rest of the project up for success.

KDOT will expand K-96 from four to six lanes, replace pavement, reconfigure seven interchanges, and add safe connections for pedestrians and cyclists on over 9 miles of freeway.

“This timely project will address deteriorating pavement conditions, congestion and safety issues on K-96 and within the K-96 ramp terminal-city street connection influence areas at interchanges,” said Kris Norton, KDOT project management consultancy coordinating engineer.

The $260 million project is projected to accommodate rapid growth and new development throughout the corridor.

“When K-96 was originally built in the mid-1990s, no one could have foreseen the significant development and growth that would occur,” said Jake Borchers, vice president and project manager for WSP. “These improvements are vital to support and encourage growth in Wichita, and south-central Kansas.”

The Tiger Team

A technical advisory group, or a “tiger team,” was brought into the fold during the proposal phase to navigate the project’s scale. This team was a collection of key technical stakeholders who provided feedback and analysis on design feasibility. The tiger team also reviewed of other technical assumptions.

“The tiger team was invaluable for creating solutions for complex designs, such as the Webb Road interchange,” Borchers said. “The geometric constraints of the Webb Road interchange made it critical for experts from many fields to vet numerous concepts. Arriving at a design solution would have taken much longer, and perhaps wouldn’t have the consensus of all project stakeholders, without the comprehensive knowledge of the tiger team.”

The tiger team held meetings throughout the design process to allow collaboration between experts in each technical discipline on proposed design ideas, and thorough review of design updates as they worked toward final, preferred alternatives.

“The main focus of our tiger team meetings was vetting interchange concepts and operations along the corridor,” Norton said. “These meetings gathered partners from all disciplines in the same room at once for input and decisions. The team approach encouraged thoughtful discussion related to pros and cons of each concept and location that led to prompt decisions to move forward with project design and public involvement.”

According to Norton and Borchers, a common thread on the team was an understanding of local transportation needs and a willingness to think broadly to solve traffic issues for this community.

Diverging Diamond Interchanges

For this project, the tiger team developed an innovative proposal: a series of diverging diamond interchanges (DDIs) coupled with roadway expansion and other interchange improvements. KDOT believes this strategy will decrease congestion and enhance safety. Pedestrians and cyclists also will benefit from new crossings.

These aren’t the first DDIs in Kansas, but it is a first for Wichita.

“DDIs offer increased capacity and operational benefits and can more safely and efficiently handle the high city street and K-96 ramp volumes compared to other configurations considered,” Norton said. “DDIs increase safety for non-motorized users going through the interchange area when compared to other more traditional configurations.”

DDIs reduce vehicle-to-vehicle conflict points by 50% and help lower severe crash incidents compared to conventional diamond interchanges. DDIs eliminate left-hand turns into oncoming traffic by forcing traffic to flow from the right side of the road to the left side of the road, and then back again. 

Pedestrian walkways also are controlled and run through the median, thus people cross fewer lanes.

The project will build a wide multi-use path for improved access to Chisholm Creek Park, which is adjacent to the K-96 freeway. The path will connect the northern park property to the south part of the park, as well as to the trail system south of K-96.

Also noteworthy: KDOT has developed a digital twin of the project, a first for the state. A digital rendering of a real-world, physical entity, a digital twin allows the project team and stakeholders to engage with a digital version of the project during planning, design, and construction.

Effective Communication

In addition to the tiger team, a community outreach group of local businesses and property owners was formed to educate and identify preliminary challenges and opportunities for improvement.

Property ownership and right-of-way conversations can be difficult but are best done with transparent conversation and open dialogue. For the right-of-way changes, the project team held one-on-one, in-person meetings with property owners to address their concerns and inform them of the process before design alternatives were made public.

The Federal National Environmental Policy Act requires KDOT to complete an environmental assessment to document the impacts the project may have on the environment.

There will be a review of existing and future land uses along the corridor. Potential historical and archaeological sites will be identified. Wetland and habitats along the creeks crossing the study area will be surveyed, and modeling will be conducted to determine potential traffic noise impacts.

As is the norm during this phase of any major project, community engagement and outreach has been a driving force throughout the project. KDOT has received community support through open houses, and by releasing project graphics and videos.

This is a result of the “early and often” communication strategy designed to address concerns before they become issues. A website also was launched to provide a foundation for outreach efforts.

The goal of this strategy: to provide the community with important information, awareness, engagement and two-way communication channels.

“While the Diverging Diamond Interchange is new to Wichita, the team received a majority of comments in favor of the new configuration and the benefits it will provide to drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians,” Norton said. “The project team has begun meetings with some affected landowners and will continue those efforts as the project timeline progresses.”

Looking Ahead

The K-96 Improvement Project team has have met with the public at many community events.

As a Wichita resident, Borchers said his vision for the K-96 highway includes more reliable drive times, an overall safer highway where motorists will feel less stress, and a better experience for pedestrians, cyclists, commuters, and freight haulers.

“I hope the project will provide more benefits for our community and support valuable growth that is happening along the corridor,” Borchers said. “The opportunity to be a part of a project that will impact so many lives in a positive way inspires me daily and pushes me to deliver this project for Wichita.

“If we engage with the community in such a way that residents felt ownership and felt proud to say that they were part of the K-96 project, that to me is a successful project at the end of the day.” R&B 

Alex Perry is a communications associate at WSP.

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