Leavenworth County residents demand road upgrades with turnpike exit
Julie Downes firmly believes that both ends of Leavenworth County Road 1 should be treated equally.
"Most of the traffic is coming from the south," Downes said. "That's what I want -- I want both roads to be done at the same time. This isn't the Civil War -- it's not the North and the South."
Downes and about 70 other Leavenworth County residents met with Leavenworth County commissioners Monday in Leavenworth. Their purpose: to ensure, if Kansas Turnpike Authority builds a turnpike interchange on County Road 1, the county road is improved on both sides of the turnpike. The proposed interchange is about eight miles east of the East Lawrence exit.
In January, KTA announced plans to build a turnpike interchange, if Leavenworth County would improve three miles of County Road 1 between Tonganoxie and the turnpike.
But some area residents, particularly those who live near the planned interchange, say three more miles of the road should be improved -- south of the turnpike to Kansas Highway 32.
John Pettengill, a nearby resident, suggested the county take the improvement farther, edging another three miles south, to the Kansas River just north of Eudora.
Downes said a KTA study showed two-thirds of vehicles using the interchange would come from the south.
"Leavenworth County Road 1 is a narrow, hilly, chip-and-seal roller coaster with steep ravines and no shoulders on much of the route," she said.
She noted the south portion of the road, from the turnpike to K-32, has numerous homes.
"The first mile and a half on the south side is as residential as areas I've lived in in Kansas City or Topeka," Downes said. "There's 23 houses in the mile and a half."
Downes said she thought officials were bowing to owners of the 2,000-acre Tailgate Ranch, who have said they would not be against being annexed into Tonganoxie if County Road 1 were selected for an interchange.
"We think the north (part of County Road 1) is being done because of the Tailgate and Tonganoxie partnership," Downes said. "... We're asking you, with all due respect, to do all -- both sides at once -- before the interchange is done."
Exit long planned
Leavenworth County planning director Chris Dunn reviewed the history of the county's push for a turnpike interchange, saying it began in the 1990s.
And, Dunn said, the project is larger than putting an interchange in Leavenworth County.
Dunn showed a Kansas City-area map that speculated about future traffic patterns.
The map noted a possible cross-country road that would connect County Road 1 with Kansas Highway 10 -- east or west of Eudora. Depending on its route, the road could hook into Gardner, near Interstate 35, or head west to Lawrence.
That would mean constructing a new bridge over the Kansas River, Dunn said. He noted a bridge currently crosses just north of Eudora.
"They're not going to be able to squeeze it (turnpike traffic) into Eudora," Dunn said. "It's going to have to go either east or west of Eudora."
Commission chairman Dean Oroke was among officials who traveled to Washington, D.C., this year to lobby for funds to improve roads.
It's expected Congress will announce federal highway funding in June or July, he said.
Commissioner Clyde Graeber told the standing-room-only crowd he wanted to hear what they had to say.
Oroke, who chairs the commission, asked the public to limit their comments to five minutes.
After several of her neighbors had talked, Downes, who earlier gave a computer-aided presentation about County Road 1, asked Oroke why the county had decided to improve only the north portion of County Road 1.
"For a year you have been on the record saying they (KTA) would require you to do the north and south," Downes said.
Oroke noted that originally, the county did not plan to improve County Road 1 south of the turnpike.
"It appears to most of us in this room that the reason KTA changed their mind was because the funding wasn't there," Downes said.
Federal funds key
As Downes was talking, the bell rang signaling the end of her five minutes.
"She can have my five minutes," said a man in the audience.
About a half-dozen other people gave their time to Downes, who continued talking.
She again said County Road 1, south of the turnpike, would be even more dangerous if turnpike traffic were added to it.
"I never really heard ... I really want to hear why is the south not being done," Downes said to the commissioners.
Oroke replied, "We have not said it is not being done."
Downes persisted, saying, "When is it going to be done?"
Oroke said he would not be able to answer that question until June or July, when commissioners knew whether the county would receive federal funds to improve roads.
Downes also asked Oroke if Tailgate Ranch owners Paul and Elizabeth McKie would be "pitching in on this."
Oroke said the McKies were donating land for right of way, adding: "We're still in negotiation as to what the dollars will be."
Charles Benjamin, an attorney representing the County Road 1 group, said when voters approved the 10-year extension of the county's 1-cent sales tax in April 2004, they didn't realize the money would fund road improvements for a turnpike interchange.
Oroke said the information was publicized prior to the election in brochures, in the local news media and through informational talks.
Countywide, about 65 percent of voters approved the sales tax extension. In Reno Township, where the interchange will be built, 69 percent voted in favor of the tax extension, which will generate about $2.79 million annually.
Leavenworth County is planning to pay about $7 million to $8 million to improve County Road 1 north of the turnpike. Tonganoxie is talking about contributing $2.8 million. And it's possible that KTA, which will pay for construction of the interchange, also may finance some off-site improvements.
Debbie Skeets, who lives near the proposed interchange, noted that the 1-cent sales tax, which will expire at the end of this year, was set up to fund the county's justice center, which opened in 2000.
"With the judicial building, you put it on there (the ballot)," Skeets said. "... This did not specifically say turnpike interchange."
And Bill Jones, who lives near the Skeets family, expressed concern about heavy turnpike vehicles, such as semi trailer trucks, using County Road 1 bridges that have a 10-ton weight limit.
"We need to fix a whole road, not just half of a road. We need to do it right, otherwise people are going to die," Jones said.
And when asked why KTA plans to build the interchange on lands near but not on Tailgate Ranch, Oroke said that site was selected because of the elevation.
Bill Petrie, president of Leavenworth County Development Corp., said he understood residents' safety concerns. He also said positive economic development aspects of an interchange should be considered.
"They're not going to have a road down there that's going to be unsafe," Petrie said. "It's just not going to happen."
But local resident Billy Skeets expressed skepticism about economic development benefits the interchange would generate.
"Sprawl doesn't pay its way," Skeets said.
After the meeting, Commissioner Graeber said he wasn't sure if Monday's meeting resolved anything.
"I think it is important, though," he said. "I want to at least send our people out to County Road 1 to have it looked at -- what can we do to improve the safety, if possible. If not, maybe we need to look at it more."