Transportation researchers came to Stilwell, in south Johnson County, to listen to the public.
They got an earful of input.
Wednesday’s public meeting was designed to solicit comments about future transportation policy in the Kansas City area. But to the noticeably skeptical audience, the meeting was a ploy to lay the ground work for an east-west traffic artery through southern Johnson County.
Many of the audience’s views were colored by two previous political battles to stop a proposed roadway sought by business, state and county leaders, said Ken Klinkensmith, a member of the South Metro Opposition Coalition and who organized the Stilwell meeting.
“I wasn’t here for the 21st Century Parkway,” he said. But Klinkensmith said he, like other activists, worked hard to stop the South Metro road, which would have slashed through a popular park and would have connected U.S. 69 on the west side of the state line , to Highway 71 on the east side of the state line. He said that, eventually, the road would have been likely extended to Gardner -- the proposed site of a giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe intermodal freight center. The 21st Century Parkway proposal was similar to the South Metro highway, he said.
Both would have benefited trucks and freight haulers at the expense of Stilwell area residents, he said.
“We were fighting it for 18 months to two years,” Klinkensmith said of the South Metro group. “Some times, it was day after day, going to the different planning commissions and council meetings
“We just want them to leave us alone.”
“Leave us alone” and “no new east-west roads” were a constant refrain at the meeting.
There isn’t any hidden agenda behind the studies, said James Tobaben, engineer for consulting engineer firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.
The Kansas Department of Transportation is trying to coordinate transportation and development rather than react to growth, Tobaben said.
In his presentation, Tom Garend, assistant transportation director for the Mid America Regional Council (MARC), told the audience that there were two different but related studies.
One was a regional transportation study being done by MARC and which is called Transportation Outlook 2040, he said.
That study, which is examining most of the Kansas City Metro area, is required by the federal government and will be finished at the end of this year, Garend said.
The other, done under the auspices of KDOT by Parsons Brinckerhoff, is called the Five County Study. It focuses on Johnson, Wyandotte, Leavenworth, Douglas and Miami counties, all ringing the Kansas side of Kansas City and among the fastest-growing counties in the state, Thomas Dowd, KDOT engineer, said.
The studies are designed to gauge what is needed in terms of transportation over the next 25 to 30 years, and help decide the best way to do that, how much money will be available and what projects should be given priority, Garend said.
Transportation isn’t just heavy trucks and commuters, he said.
“It’s not just about interchanges,” he said. “It’s not just about the condition of concrete.”
Increasingly, traffic planners are taking into account other issues such as climate change, energy use, quality of life and public health when they consider projects, he said.
“This isn‘t something we talked about five years ago, or even three years ago,”Garend said. “They continue to be elevated.”
Public transit also looms larger in traffic planning, he said.That could include rail transit, special bus services or even special “carpool” lanes on the interstate, he said.
It’s cheaper to create and maintain something like the express bus service along K-10 between Lawrence and Kansas than continuing to expand highways, he said.
KDOT is trying to figure out how to deal with changes in traffic patterns and growth caused by certain “high impact developments,” Dowd said.
One of the more recent high-impact developments is the Kansas Speedway, he said.
“I don’t think anybody could really anticipate the amount of development that happened next to the Kansas Speedway,” Dowd said. Several giant retailers and entertainment centers such as Nebraska Furniture Mart and Legends. Also developed were the water park built next to the track, and several large hotel chains are building or planning to locate in the area, he said.
Once it’s built, the proposed Burlington Northern Santa Fe intermodal freight center could result in at least 10,000 trucks a day entering or leaving the site, he said.
“We find ourselves in a position of having to react to these developments,” Dowd said. "Cheaper and better decisions are made when KDOT gets ahead of such development and manages it to provide more efficient and safer traffic flows, he said.
Many in the audience weren’t impressed.
“You seem to have forgotten people,” said one man who rides public transit buses into Kansas City. Too often transportation proposals are more about the convenience of freight-truck traffic rather than people, he said.
Many recalled the bruising political battles combating the 21st Century Parkway and the South Metro Freeway. The roads -- and their resulting noise, pollution and increased hazards -- would have ruined the quality of life in southern Johnson County, they said.
Members of the audience said they made the choice to travel farther to go to work so they could live in the slower, quieter communities in the southern part of the county.
“I think Johnson County needs to get out of MARC,” Darrell Dugan, Aubrey Township trustee, said. “… We don’t want any part of this. We want you to leave our community alone.”