The U.S. 69 Corridor Modernization and Expansion Project, 69 Express, will determine how best to widen U.S. 69 to six lanes (three lanes in each direction) and modify interchanges that connect U.S. 69 to the local street network. One aspect being examined is whether tolling the new lane (also called an express toll lane) provides additional long-term safety, traffic flow and trip time reliability benefits. The existing “free lanes” will remain free. The Project also includes an Environmental Assessment and preliminary engineering necessary to move improvements closer to construction.
This Project is looking at express toll lanes to see how they compare to other previously studied strategies to improve congestion, travel time reliability and community quality of life. Express toll lanes would enable drivers to choose if they want to pay a toll to drive in the free-flowing express lanes, which in turn helps reduce congestion in the toll-free general-purpose lanes. Express toll lanes generate revenue, so they also would provide a way for the City of Overland Park to generate its local contribution to U.S. 69 improvements and help accelerate the Project’s construction schedule. Because this is a new concept in the metro area, KDOT and the City of Overland Park are committed to conducting significant engineering and toll analyses of express toll lanes’ costs and benefits to make informed decisions about their use and to providing a strong engagement process so the public can understand and comment on the potential improvement’s pros and cons.
The portion of U.S. 69 under study runs from just south of 179th Street to just north of 103rd Street in Overland Park, Kansas. The Project focuses on examining potential improvements on U.S. 69 and at the interchanges that connect U.S. 69 to the local street network.
The Environmental Assessment (EA), traffic, safety and financial analysis processes began in October 2020 and are expected to be completed by late 2021. If results from these analyses show community and environmental support, then final design and construction could begin in 2022.
Safety and congestion issues have been identified along U.S. 69 in a series of studies and related projects conducted over the last 25 years. During that time, commuters and travelers have become increasingly frustrated with higher accident rates, growing congestion and increasing travel times. The problem is only expected to increase. As development continues, traffic volume over the next two decades is projected to double, and travel times are projected to triple. Not surprisingly, U.S. 69 improvements were identified as the metropolitan area’s most important priority during Local Consult meetings held across the State of Kansas in 2019.
69 Express, which began in October 2020, involves conducting an Environmental Assessment (EA) to determine if there are significant environmental impacts associated with proposed improvements. The Project also will determine if adding express toll lanes for north and southbound traffic could offer a less-congested alternative. This option requires additional traffic, safety and revenue analyses, and those analyses are underway to supplement the EA. The process is expected to be completed by late 2021. If the results from these analyses are positive, then final design and construction could begin by 2022.
An Environmental Assessment (EA) evaluates the impacts proposed improvements will have on the natural and man-made environment. It is designed to help agencies, elected officials and the public make sound decisions for the Project and its surrounding area. In this case, if there are no major environmental impacts associated with the Project, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will issue a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). If environmental concerns are found in the study area, additional assessment will be required to determine how to mitigate the issues. An EA is one type of environmental document necessary to secure federal clearance and funding for transportation improvements. It is required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) for certain projects that involve federal funding or require federal action.
The Project cost depends upon several factors, including what is ultimately built (project scope) and schedule. Both can change based on preliminary engineering, additional analysis and local input on what is important. At this time, improvements between 179th and 103rd Streets are estimated to cost about $550 million. A first phase, focused between 151st and 103rd Streets, is estimated to cost approximately $300 million. Cost estimates will be updated in the fall of 2021 as the scope is refined to address as many needs as possible with available resources.
Traffic levels on U.S. 69 have been impacted by COVID-19. Daily trips as of November 2020 are approximately 6% lower than in 2019 and peak period congestion is less than pre-COVID conditions. However, traffic has begun to increase, and community input and technical analysis suggest that the long-term needs of the corridor still require the level of improvements being studied.
The Project is evaluating several elements relative to climate change as part of the EA, including:
- The anticipated difference in air quality as a result of improving congestion. Specifically, the Project team anticipates reductions in air pollution that now result from idling vehicles stuck in congestion.
- Opportunities to enhance service and promote the use of transit in this corridor by allowing publicly managed transit vehicles (busses, para-transit, micro-transit and transit on-demand) to use the express lanes at a reduced toll. This would effectively move more people in fewer vehicles, thereby reducing emissions.
- Stream crossings. The Project will identify possible impacts to streams and wetlands and look for opportunities to reduce those impacts as required by the Corps of Engineers, FEMA and other regulatory agencies.
The traffic projections being used for the study are based on the adopted land use plans both at the City level and the regional level. The Project team is coordinating closely with Mid-America Regional Council, the area’s regional planning organization, and the City of Overland Park to understand growth and development projections. This review will help the team project what traffic will look like in the future. As U.S. 69 is improved with additional lanes (tolled or untolled) and becomes less congested, some traffic likely will shift from the local streets to U.S. 69, thereby making the City’s arterial streets less congested.
The express lanes solution would permit transit vehicles to use the express lanes at a reduced toll rate. This would allow individual transit riders to access a reliable trip at a low or no cost. KDOT anticipates that any hike/bike paths or sidewalks affected by project construction would be restored as part of the project. Additionally, connectivity across U.S. 69, which can be a barrier to pedestrians and cyclists, would be improved at the various cross streets that do not have sidewalks or hike/bike facilities. Bike lanes on the arterial streets that cross U.S. 69 would be evaluated using the City’s criteria.
KDOT receives many emails, phone calls and letters about litter along the highways in Johnson County. These requests heighten our resolve to include trash pickup on our to-do list. However, KDOT crews are also responsible for other maintenance and safety issues, including snow removal, mowing, cutting down unwanted brush and trees, performing sign repair and installation, repairing guardrail, pothole patching, pavement striping, drainage work, etc. Our crews are often called to manage traffic control for vehicle crashes.
Regardless, KDOT does pick up trash. We even offer overtime pay to employees willing to pick up trash on the weekends. That said, staffing is one of KDOT’s greatest challenges and our maintenance crews are not fully staffed.
The good news is KDOT has received authorization to hire a contractor to help with trash pickup in northeast Kansas, specifically targeting problem areas in Johnson County. The procurement process is underway with the expectation that the services of a qualified contractor can begin soon, weather permitting.
KDOT shares the public’s desire to see clean highways and we want to be a part of the solution. We will continue to make trash pickup a priority and suggest community messaging that asks people to not throw trash out of the car window or let it fly off the back of a truck. Be assured we will continue to collaborate with local and state officials to address the issue.
Solutions Under Consideration
KDOT and the City of Overland Park have studied a variety of solutions for addressing safety and mobility problems through the year 2050. Strategies such as expanded transit, interchange improvements and ramp metering are not sufficient to address problems in the corridor. Additional lanes are needed to address current and future congestion. Because of the characteristics of the U.S. 69 corridor — high traffic volumes, anticipated growth and regional demographics — express toll lanes could provide additional congestion management benefits beyond just adding new toll-free lanes and could provide a potential new source of funding for the local contribution.
An express toll lane is a lane that is available to any driver who chooses to pay a user fee (toll) to achieve more reliable travel time. The toll rate goes up as traffic increases (such as during rush hour or other peak traffic times) to keep the toll lane flowing smoothly and the toll-free, general-purpose lanes also flowing better. The current price to enter the toll lane is communicated to drivers via signs so drivers choose for themselves whether they want to pay that price to drive in the free-flowing toll lane. Thus, the price of the toll varies with the amount of traffic in the corridor. By providing choices, express toll lanes will reduce delays, manage congestion and keep travel times reliable for drivers.
Express toll lanes are a more sustainable solution for improving U.S. 69 because they better relieve congestion now and into the future as compared to widening the corridor with additional toll-free lanes. With an express lanes solution, drivers can choose to pay a toll to use the express toll lanes if improved speed and reliability are desired or essential for their trip. Applying a variably priced toll, based on the level of traffic, ensures that the express toll lanes will consistently operate at free-flow conditions even as traffic continues to grow in the corridor over time. By offering a consistently free-flowing lane at all times, there is less pressure to build additional highway lanes in the future. Adding a lane without a toll will eventually lead to all lanes experiencing congestion as traffic continues to grow — with few options beyond building yet again another lane.
Local contributions are funds and other things of value that cities, counties and sometimes the private sector provide to help advance important infrastructure projects. They recognize the importance of local and state partners working closely together to improve the Kansas transportation network for local and regional benefit.
Express toll lanes offer a way for the users of U.S. 69 to generate revenues that could fund Overland Park’s local contribution. As the tolls are collected, that revenue over time would offset initial construction investment of the new lanes for KDOT.
Adding new lanes is an expensive proposition and, typically, does not relieve congestion for long in a suburban corridor like U.S. 69. Express toll lanes, however, are a proven congestion management tool that could improve the operation of the entire U.S. 69 corridor for all drivers and help cover costs for the new lanes. By adding express toll lanes to existing general-purpose lanes, drivers can choose which lanes to use by making an individual trade-off decision between cost and time. The result is that congestion is better managed across all lanes as drivers respond to toll prices that are set to balance traffic between toll and general-purpose lanes.
The Project was selected for the project development pipeline in the Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Program (IKE). Planning and engineering work is initiated on projects in the development pipeline to prepare projects for construction. For a project to move from the development pipeline to construction, communities are asked to partner with KDOT in one or more ways: (1) provide local contribution, including funds; (2) build portions of the project over a longer period of time (project phasing); and/or (3) negotiate the scope of the project to better fit available taxpayer funding. Tolling is being considered as a way to generate local contribution. Funding for construction includes state funding from the State Highway Fund and the local contribution.
Yes. However, without the ability to manage congestion and trip reliability using express lanes, long-term improvements may cost more, take longer to implement and see benefits end sooner. The Project’s local contribution also would need to come from a different source.
How Express Toll Lanes Work
Express toll lanes are being evaluated on U.S. 69 between 179th and 103rd Streets. Where exactly they may begin and end in the corridor has not been determined yet.
This roadway would follow standard guidance for express toll lane facilities if they are identified as appropriate for U.S. 69. Signage and striping are used to make sure everyone understands the new lane is a toll lane. Ample space and signage will allow drivers time to enter and exit the express toll lane as needed.
There will be no toll booths on the express toll lanes. Drivers would choose to enter an express toll lane and payment would be charged electronically.
Potential toll rates are being studied now; more will be known by the end of the second quarter of 2021. Toll rates would be based on anticipated usage. Throughout the day, toll rates would change to manage congestion levels to keep express toll lane traffic free flowing and to reduce congestion in the general-purpose lanes.
Other Express Toll Lane Considerations
The current toll study is developing estimates of how much revenue may be generated through tolling. Results are expected by the second quarter of 2021. A previous study estimated that revenues would offset a portion of the construction costs, with generated revenue slowly rising over the first 10 years of operation, then increase as traffic grows over time.
By statute, the toll revenue must be spent on U.S. 69 in Johnson County.
For tolling to be feasible, revenue collected from tolling first must cover its own cost of collection including operations, maintenance and periodic replacement of the roadside toll system, which normally occurs every 10–15 years. After those costs are covered, remaining toll revenue will be used to reimburse KDOT for the City’s local contribution toward a portion of the initial construction costs and to fund future corridor improvements.
No. It is meant to generate the City of Overland Park’s local contribution toward the Project.
No. Tolling is one way to accelerate the construction of U.S. 69 improvements and provide a more sustainable solution for managing congestion and improving travel time reliability.
Absolutely not. Under state law, existing lanes cannot be tolled and must remain as free general-purpose lanes. Additionally, new express toll lanes can only be added through a lengthy and detailed partnership process involving the community, KDOT, KTA and state elected officials.
All drivers – including users of the toll-free, general-purpose lanes – will benefit from added capacity on U.S. 69, helping all traffic flow better. Equity issues are being specifically evaluated in consultation with the community, the advisory group and others as part of the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process that highway projects like this must undergo before going to construction. What is known from numerous studies is that people of all income levels use express toll lanes and agree they reduce congestion.
Allowing transit to use the express lanes at a reduced toll would provide an opportunity for lower-income residents to access the reliable trip provided by express lanes at a low or no cost. Additionally, tolls are a user fee only incurred when the driver chooses to use the express toll lane. Other local contribution funding sources may involve taxing all residents, whether they use the lanes or not. We anticipate allowing all personal vehicles to use the express lanes, including drivers who choose not to become K-TAG account holders, which may include lower-income residents. This provides the opportunity for those users to use the express lanes only in an emergency or occasional trip where the increased reliability is essential.
The City of Overland Park, in consultation with KDOT, would propose express toll lanes to the KTA Board and the State Finance Council for their respective approvals if that approach is desired. If tolling is approved by those bodies and state funding is sufficient, the Project will be advanced from the development pipeline to construction.
If Overland Park determines that express toll lanes are the desired option for generating its local contribution, construction could begin as early as the summer of 2022. If express toll lanes are not the desired solution for generating the City’s local contribution, the Project will pause development while new strategies are considered to:
- Contribute the City’s local contribution from some other revenue source;
- Reduce the scope of the Project to align with available state dollars; or
- Delay the Project until a combination of state and local funding sources are available.
Local contributions help move projects more quickly out of the KDOT development pipeline and into construction, saving money lost to inflation and more quickly improving safety and congestion. Without a local contribution, projects typically take longer to begin construction, may be reduced in scope to match available state funding or might be built in phases over a longer period of time.
In the case of U.S. 69, toll revenues could be used as the source of Overland Park’s local contribution. But the local contribution does not have to come from tolling. Other forms of local contribution may be acceptable; it’s up to the community to decide how to fund their local contribution. For example, Overland Park could fund its local contribution from its general revenues or impose an increased sales, property or excise tax. The difference in approach can be summed up as express lanes are a voluntary user fee paid only by drivers choosing to use those lanes versus all residents and businesses paying a higher local tax whether they use the road or not.
Previous studies indicated that express toll lanes will reduce congestion but recommended that this be evaluated in more detail. Estimates of how many drivers will choose to use the express toll lanes and how much congestion reduction will occur in all lanes are being developed and are expected by the second quarter of 2021.
A significant community engagement effort has begun and will continue throughout the study. It offers several ways for the public to be involved. The best way to stay informed and make your voice heard is by attending the virtual or hybrid public meetings that will take place at several Project milestones. Other ways to stay involved include visiting the Project website periodically at 69Express.org and its Facebook, Twitter and Nextdoor pages. The Project’s website and social media pages enable the public to leave comments for members of the Project team to respond to. People also can sign up for Project updates and newsletters.