By Gavin Jenkins, Senior Managing Editor
The part of U.S. Route 69 that runs through Overland Park is the busiest stretch of four-lane highway in Kansas. It’s also one of the most dangerous.
Crash rates along this corridor are 53% above the statewide average.
A series of studies conducted over the last 25 years have identified safety and congestion issues along U.S. 69, as well. Commuters and travelers have grown increasingly frustrated with higher accident rates, growing congestion, and increasing travel times.
The problem is expected to increase. As Kansas City’s suburban development continues, traffic volume is projected to double and travel times are estimated to triple over the next two decades. Furthermore, the existing infrastructure is more than 50 years old.
It was not a shock when U.S. 69 improvements were identified as Johnson County’s most important priority during local consult meetings held across Kansas in 2019.
For these reasons, the Kansas Department of Transportation launched the 69Express Project. With help from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the project in Overland Park will reconstruct the highway and add an express toll lane in each direction between 103rd Street to 151st Street.
These will be the first express toll lanes in Kansas history.
“Any time you have a first of something, there’s a process you have to go through,” said Steve Rockers, a KDOT engineer and the project director for the 69Express Project.
Evaluation and improvements to U.S. 69 have been ongoing for more than 20 years. It gained steam in 2019, when the Kansas state legislature approved the use of express toll lanes.
Design and construction costs are $570 million, with more than $450 million coming from the IIJA. The project promises to improve safety and reduce congestion. It started last year and is expected to be completed in 2025.
To get to this point, the project had to overcome two major challenges: coordinating several groups that are involved and getting the public onboard with, not only a construction project on the busiest stretch of highway in Kansas, but also adding a cashless express toll lane in each direction.
“Gaining board support for the project was crucial to navigating the approval process,” Rockers said. “We needed approval from the city of Overland Park, the Kansas Turnpike Authority board, and the state finance council in Topeka. To get all of these folks to approve it, we had a healthy education campaign about how these toll lanes are going to work, and why we are doing it. We had several community task forces and a comprehensive public outreach program that reached over 1 million people to explain the project and solicit input.”
Construction is a joint venture between Ames Construction and Emery Sapp and Sons. HNTB is supporting KDOT as its program management consultant overseeing design and construction, with Jason Sanders as project manager.
“The power of partnership is what drives this project,” Sanders said. “Partnership with Overland Park,, the Kansas Turnpike Authority, and with FHWA. And now during construction, that partnership has extended to the industry as well, with the contractor and the engineers, and so forth. The power of partnership yields results, and it captures what KDOT is all about.”
Rockers said this is KDOT’s third design and build project.
Crews work 24-hours a day, six days a week. However, during peak hours — morning and evening rush hour — there are no lane drops on the highway.
“Travel times through the project have been largely unaffected during peak hours,” Sanders said. “Minimizing impact to traffic is a commitment KDOT made to the community, and it’s something we’ll continue to monitor.”
In 2020, an Environmental Assessment (EA) was conducted, as required by the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), to determine if there were significant environmental impacts associated with proposed improvements. It was determined that adding express lanes for northbound and southbound traffic will offer better travel time reliability and a more-sustainable alternative. This option required additional traffic, safety, and revenue analyses to supplement the EA.
Eleven noise walls will be erected as part of the project because a study determined traffic noise levels specific to the express lane configuration met or exceeded federal and state impact thresholds.
In 2025, when construction is completed, KDOT will launch another education campaign to urge motorists to sign up for KTAG — the Kansas Turnpike’s electronic toll collection program. However, drivers who do not sign up will receive a bill after their license plate is scanned.
“I’m excited,” Rockers said. “This project has been in the making for a long time.” R&B