Gov. Kelly and KDOT Secretary Lorenz expound on highway rebuilding plans

Edward J. Naughton
Pratt Tribune
Kansas Governor Laura Kelly and KDOT Secretary Julie Lorentz were in Dodge City last week to outline western Kansas highway infrastructure plans.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly visited the Santa Fe Railroad Depot in Dodge City on Wednesday morning, July 7, to formally announce significant new infrastructure investment in nine highway improvement projects in western Kansas over the next several years under a program she dubbed the IKE plan. 

Safety was one of the prime reasons Kelly and Kansas Department of Transportation Secretary Julie Lorenz gave for instituting these projects in western Kansas.

"Less than three years ago none of these projects were under development, and now we are able to commit to constructing them - that really is no small feat," Kelly said. "In the 1960s, about 30% of the state's budget went to transportation, and unfortunately, over time, those investments began to decrease."

The need for extensive pavement rehabilitation, passing lanes, and also extending some already existing passing lanes, make up the bulk of the work now planned in this development pipeline. 

Kelly gave credit where credit was due when it came down to the decision-making phase of the The Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Program.

"Finally and most importantly, I want to thank communities in Kansas who advocated for these projects - they worked with us to find a way to deliver them," Kelly said. "All of the projects we are announcing today were made possible by communities working with KDOT to find a more cost effective approach, and these really are fantastic projects."

To meet an especially critical need which has been for sought for many years by residents of Hodgeman County and nearby towns, Lorenz has authorized adding road shoulders to a run of 15 miles of K-156, now finally included in the expansion and modernization highway projects plan scheduled to be completed sometime in 2023 in the aftermath of the to-be -determined construction letting. 

Chris Klein, county commissioner for District 3 in Hodgeman County, attended the briefing and was all smiles when he heard his county will benefit from this extensive project. 

Hodgeman County has one of the biggest projects in the offing as K-156 is scheduled for construction letting to finally modernize in 2023, with pavement rehabilitation and add shoulders under the IKE plan. 

"We are very excited for this project as we have been fighting for this modernization for several years," Klein said.

Klein also said the K-156 stretch of road in question now to be finally modernized starting in 2023, currently has essentially no shoulder to accommodate vehicle emergencies, and unfortunately there are steep ditches to contend with in many places should a driver decide to move off road for any reason including vehicle or passenger emergencies. 

These kind of driving challenges - narrow road, no shoulder, and essentially no place to go, have contributed to many accidents over the years, including rollovers, averaging at times three accidents a week, according to Hodgeman County Sheriff Jared Walker.

Also one accident in Hodgeman County which occurred sometime in 2016, according to the bus driver, involved a county school bus, driven at that time by USD 227 bus driver Nolan Salmans. He said that a semi side-swiped his school bus and there was no shoulder to pull over onto.

“We clipped mirrors, which could have been very bad,” Salmans said. “I had 32 kids on there that morning. It was scary."

For those Kansans living in Pratt County and surrounding regions, there is also good news in the current development pipeline with this modernization and improvement plan. Two miles are to be added to the existing passing lanes between Wellsford and Cullison.

One of the problems which both the governor and secretary eluded to in the briefing was this - KDOT in years past, prior to the Kelly administration, was suffering want for transportation needs as the transportation budget dwindled when other state projects not transportation-related came into competitive play. Thus the KDOT fund was being used as a bank of sorts. 

This use of KDOT as a bank instead of strictly a transportation fund naturally caused delays in ongoing projects for needs in road improvements, which might have caused undue stress and/or deterioration of known road maintenance issues state-wide for years to come, had not this newly announced IKE plan development pipeline project not come along in time to save the day. 

The 15-mile stretch of K-156 possibly being a case in point as far as timeliness goes, as residents in Hodgeman County and county commissioners there have been petitioning vigorously for a fix for years. 

Lorenz said at the briefing that T-works projects are being worked systematically. 

"I want to assure everyone in this room that we are working on the delayed T-works projects," she said. "Those projects will be completed. The first phase of each of those delayed projects will go to construction before the projects we talk about today go to construction. So rest assured I know there is a lot in this area, and we will begin in the first phase of each one of those projects. And we will continue to work in those projects that were announced in the development pipeline last May."

To outline what the current administration is doing with this state-wide authorization of funds for modernization and roads improvement, Lorenz said three-quarters of a billion dollars worth of projects has been moved into construction, to improve Kansans' lives, safety and the economy.