Special Reports

June 8, 2007

Highway plan linked to future of Greensburg

The tornado that leveled most of this community cleared the way for a highway construction project that may ultimately shape how the town will be rebuilt.

The tornado that leveled most of this community cleared the way for a highway construction project that may ultimately shape how the town will be rebuilt.

Hundreds of displaced Greensburg residents gathered Thursday beneath a massive tent for a town hall meeting on the long-range recovery planning for their town.

Residents got a chance to comment on two options for the U.S. 54 expansion project through the community, and to offer their ideas for it and other long-range recovery efforts.

A 2002 plan for the U.S. 54 expansion project had initially proposed skirting the town to the south. The more-desired route through the business section was not feasible at the time because it would have displaced or relocated a huge number of houses and businesses, said Sean Gellhaus, a civil engineer with architectural design firm HNTB, the Overland Park consulting firm working on the project.

The destruction left behind by a tornado, which destroyed more than 90 percent of the town, has rekindled community leaders' efforts to bring the highway through town -- a move favored by business owners hoping to draw on that traffic.

Determining that route now is crucial because it will determine where businesses, houses and schools will be rebuilt.

"It can have a huge impact on a community -- especially when you are starting from scratch," Gellhaus said.

Jerry Younger, assistant secretary for the Kansas Department of Transportation, told residents that as soon as a decision is made on the concept for the future highway, his department will begin acquiring properties along the corridor. He said he would like a decision on which plan the community wants within the next four to six weeks.

"We are going to move as fast or as slow as this community wants us to," he said.

It will cost an estimated $5 million just to complete the engineering and acquire property for the corridor, Younger said, adding that the department is working with state and federal officials to find money to buy those properties.

The U.S. 54 expansion project is expected to cost $30 million to $50 million. Younger said there was no funding for that on the horizon before the tornado.

The town hall meeting was broken off into sections where residents could post comments on boards for the vision they have for rebuilding.

"This is your community -- you decide where we are going to go," said Benjamin Alexander, a long-term community recovery planner with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Resident Cassie Kirby said it was really nice that city leaders are encouraging a lot of ideas, saying people need to feel they are part of the process.

But resident Sharon Sangster said after the meeting that she would have liked to have had more concrete answers, lamenting that it was probably to early for any. She said the pep talk did some good.

Her greatest fear?

"That the community will not survive -- that it will become a ghost town," she said.

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