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Northwest Passage back on track
Long-awaited Nickerson-Sterling project could start by spring 2021
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.

The on-again-off-again revamped stretch of K-96 between Nickerson and Sterling is back on again. This is big news for Great Bend, said Great Bend Chamber of Commerce President Jan Peters. 

This marks the next key piece to the long-awaited Northwest Passage, an improved diagonal highway network ultimately connecting Wichita with I-70 at Hays, she said. The path cuts through Barton County.

 “It’s a great project,” said Peters, who has long advocated for the improvements. “We are thrilled. It is going to be a game changer.”

The announcement was made during the Kansas Department of Transportation consult meeting held in Hutchinson Aug. 20. This was one of eight such meetings held around the state last month during which updates on assorted projects were given.

The best news, she said, is that the $96.5 million project is going to be let in February of 2021. Construction will probably start in April 2021 and it will be completed in November 2022.

“I know it seems like a long ways out there,” she said. “But, there have been so many people and so many communities working on this for so long.”

The state is doing a lot of long-range planning, Peters said. A spreadsheet prepared by KDOT listed the Nickerson-to-Sterling portion, as well as Sterling to Lyons, Lyons to Ellinwood and from Ellinwood to Great Bend.

“So, it may take another 20-25 years, but you know what, I bet we are going to get it,” she said. “This is the place we kind of have to start.”

The K-96 project dates back to 1984, she said. “There have been so many people working on just the corridor from Nickerson up to Sterling.” 

Money comes from Transportation Works for Kansas (T-Works), administered through the Kansas Department of Transportation. This 10-year, $7.8 billion program was 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.

However, T-Works was derailed during a state budget crunch that started in 2012, sparked by the passage of an income tax cut known as the “Kansas experiment.” It forced the siphoning of KDOT funds into the general fund. 

Now, T-Works has been resurrected and the K-96 project has always been popular with state officials, Peters said. It was a top priority and their number one pick from the 25 projects shelved. 

“What they’ve always like about this is the regional support,” she said of the Nickerson-Sterling route.

Also, when it comes to this highway, “their main concern is always safety,” Peters said.

The existing roadway from Nickerson to Sterling’s sharp turns, steep sides, and narrow pavement, shoulders and right-of-way make it dangerous, area officials say. KDOT 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, according to KDOT documents. The new alignment will save an estimated 15 minutes for emergency vehicles traveling to regional medical centers in Hutchinson Wichita. 

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

The task force  

Last year, with T-Works re-implemented, a task force was created by state statute and was comprised of state senators and representatives, including 109th District Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, who covers portions of Barton County. Also included was Kip Spray of Great Bend’s Venture Corporation representing the Kansas Contractors Association.

The goal was to evaluate the T-Works program and the transportation system, identify other possible priorities, and assess funding. It held meetings around the state and presented its report in the 2019 legislative session to become part of the next comprehensive transportation plan. 

It encompasses not just roads, but also air and rail transportation, as well as transload facilities, like the one in Great Bend.

Peters and city officials attended the task force meeting in Newton last fall.

The task force report led to the revival of the Northwest Passage.

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. The 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 costs and traffic usage for two-lane and four-lane alternates. 

In 1989, the Legislature approved a Comprehensive Highway Program that started the selection process. The first leg of the passage, the completed four-lane expressway along K-96 from Wichita to Hutchinson, was one of them. 

The idea now is to build a new Super 2 K-96 (a two-lane road on a 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 KDOT’s major modernization effort. I also included 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 KDOT, thus delaying scheduled projects.

Now, the upgrades are back on track and 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, Peters said. The region has unanimously endorsed by-passes at Nickerson and Sterling.