By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
K-96 improvements, Northwest Passage may be back
Local officials to testify Thursday about highway projects
new_deh_nw passage map.jpg
This map shows the study area for the portion of the Northwest Passage planned for Reno and Rice counties. The portion between Nickerson and Sterling is in the works.
This really is a huge project for us. This is our chance to be heard.
Great Bend Chamber of Commerce President Jan Peters

The on-again, off-again Northwest Passage may be on once again, local officials hope. This is the stretch of the long-proposed diagonal highway ultimately connecting Wichita to I-70 that cuts through Reno, Rice and Barton counties.

Great Bend Chamber of Commerce President Jan Peters advised the City Council Monday night of efforts to resuscitate the improved K-96 corridor, first suggested over 30 years ago. Peters will join a coalition of area officials in testifying before the 2018 Joint Legislative Transportation Vision Task Force Thursday afternoon at the Meridian Center in Newton. 

On the table now, Peters said, is the next phase of the passage, one tying Hutchinson to Sterling. 

“This really is a huge project for us,” Peters said. “This is our chance to be heard.”

Joining Peters will be: Debra Teufel with the Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce; John Sweet, a consultant for Lyons; Taggart Wall from Sterling; and Jon Prescott from Sunflower Diversified Services in Great Bend. All support this effort, but realize resources and funding are limited.

“This is the first step,” she said. “If we aren’t at the table now, we will miss out.”

Some history

The Northwest Passage, a proposed diagonal corridor from Wichita northwest to the cities of Hutchinson, Great Bend and Hays, was considered by the Kansas Legislature in 1986. Legislation directed the Kansas Turnpike Authority to study the feasibility of constructing turnpike projects or freeways on three major corridors, including this route. 

An engineering study was completed to determine comparative costs and traffic usage for two-lane and four-lane alternates on both existing and new locations. 

In 1989, the Legislature approved a Comprehensive Highway Program that started the selection of corridor highway projects. The first leg of the passage, K-96 from Wichita to Hutchinson, was one of them. 

“This completed four-lane expressway now provides that important regional link in South Central Kansas,” Peters said. According to the K-DOT traffic flow map, average traffic counts at the midway point of this highway carried 7,450 in 1990 and by July 2017 carried 11,300 vehicles.

What is the Northwest Passage?

The idea was to build a new Super 2 K-96 alignment on four-laned right of way from Hutchinson to north of Sterling, bypassing Nickerson and Sterling. During the community consult meeting in 2012, seven cities and three counties officially endorsed this as a Tier 1 project.

Bid letting was set for October 2016. Construction was set to begin in January 2017.

This project seemed like the next logical extension of K-DOT’s major corridor modernization effort which has seen the construction of US 400/K-96 in Southeast Kansas, the K-96 bypass around Wichita, the K-96 expressway from Wichita to Hutchinson and the K-96 Bob Dole Bypass around Hutchinson. The next phase would look at taking the route to Great Bend and on to I-70.

But, in 2016, 25 modernization projects were delayed due to the pressures on the State General Fund that caused a shift of funding from KDPT, thus delaying scheduled projects.

“We want them to revisit these projects,” Peters said. “A lot of these projects were valid then and they are valid today.”

The K-96 project has always been popular with state officials, she said, adding it was their number one pick from the 25 projects shelved. “What they’ve always like about this is the regional support.”

In addition to the 39 pages of testimony, the team will present a stack of letters of support from communities, officials and others.

Why is it needed?

The existing roadway’s right angle turns, steep side slopes and very narrow pavement, shoulders and right-of-way make it extremely dangerous, area officials say. Area K-DOT engineers state that the roadway has outlived its useful life. 

The condition of the roadway warrants complete replacement since some consider it the worst stretch of K-96. The proposed new alignment will save an estimated 15 minutes for emergency vehicles traveling to the Regional Medical Center in Hutchinson or to Wichita trauma centers. 

The existing circuitous route through Nickerson and Sterling’s Main Street dramatically slows traffic. Truck and travelers presently use several alternative routes, mostly county roads, which are not built to accommodate this load.

Upgrades to this stretch of highway will further the long term goal of connecting Wichita to the northwest and 1-70. There is strong regional support from Reno, Rice and Barton counties as well as the cities along the corridor. The region has unanimously endorsed a Super 2 configuration on four-lane right-of-ways with by-passes at Nickerson and Sterling.

“As a region we supported the 2010 T-WORKS program and we compliment the Legislature for creating this Transportation Task Force to begin the process of resolving the dilemma that has occurred with the ongoing transfers from the highway fund to other areas of state government, thus leaving much of the 2010 programs unfinished,” Peters said.

“This task force sets into motion a statewide initiative to identify current and future transportation needs throughout Kansas,” she said. “There is a great deal at stake here for our region with the K-96/Sterling project along with the hundreds of other previously approved projects that Kansas cities and counties have been promised through the T-Works program.”

The task force and T-Works

Administered through the Kansas Department of Transportation, the Transportation Works for Kansas (T-Works) program is a 10-year, $7.8 billion program passed by the Legislature in 2010. Community input and other research identified priority projects in each of KDOT’s six districts covering all 105 counties.

In the South Central District, encompassing Barton and surrounding counties, the K-96 corridor in Reno and Rice counties was tagged as a “first-tier priority project in September 2012.

Created by state statutes, the body is comprised of state senators and representatives, including 109th District Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, who covers much of northern, eastern and western Barton County. Among the non-legislative members is Kip Spray of Great Bend’s Venture Corporation representing the Kansas Contractors Association.

The goal for the task force is to evaluate the T-Works program and the current state of the transportation system, identify other possible priorities, and assess funding. It will present its report in the 2019 legislative session.

This will be the next comprehensive transportation plan, Peters said. It encompasses not just roads, but also air and rail transportation, as well as transload facilities, like the one in Great Bend.

The Newton hearing is one of several being conducted by the task force around the state addressing various projects, all vying for limited funding.

Great Bend City Council meeting at a glance

Here is a quick look at what the Great Bend City Council did Monday night:

• Mayor Joe Andrasek appointed a committee to study the feasibility of installing artificial turf on the baseball and softball fields at the Great Bend Sports Complex.

Named were Councilwoman Jolene Biggs, Public Lands Director Scott Keeler, USD 428 Superintendent Kris Thexton and Great Bend resident Shawn Behr. The city is also going to reach out to school maintenance supervisor Cody Schmidt about being a part of the committee.

No date has been set for a recommendation to be made.

• Heard an administrator’s update from City Administrator Kendal Francis.

• Named Francis at the city’s voting delegate at the League of Kansas Municipalities conference in Topeka this weekend.

• Council members took turns congratulating city personnel for their efforts on the Mega Motor Weekend.

• Heard an economic development report from Chamber of Commerce President Jan Peters.

• Approved abatements at: 401 Almond, accumulation of refuse; 918 Ninth, accumulation of refuse; 2212 28th, accumulation of refuse; 1036 Jefferson, motor vehicle nuisance; and 1036 Jefferson, accumulation of refuse.

• Approved a door-to-door license for IG Construction out of Lexington, Mo., requested by Chris Huffman. 

• Approved a tree trimmer’s license for IG Construction as well.

new_deh_city council jan peters pic.jpg
Great Bend Chamber of Commerce President Jan Peters talks to the City Council Monday night about efforts to resuscitate the improved K-96 corridor. She will testify Thursday in Newton on the project. - photo by Dale Hogg