No road construction project is more pressing for Sedgwick County, and maybe Kansas, than the antiquated Kellogg and I-235 interchange, with its steep ramps and high accident rates. So it was unbelievable to see its replacement blocked last week – presumably temporarily – by two county commissioners whose parochial, us-versus-them thinking also stalled a county vote to help fund Visioneering.
The cloverleaf has averaged more than one wreck a week for decades, and was linked to 79 injuries and one fatality between 2004 and 2008. The interchange has been studied to death, caught in endless arguing among governments about how to pay for the costly fix.
Now the $116 million construction project is finally at the top of the priority list for the state as well as the community, and an agreement has been negotiated between the state, city and county that would put the project out for bid in late 2015.
But County Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau balked at the county’s contribution of $11.6 million as a local match (most of it actually federal funding to the county) to state dollars. Really?
“There are revenue streams available to the city of Wichita to pay for this,” Ranzau said Wednesday, suggesting “there’s a better way to do it, smarter way to do it, more fiscally sound way to do it.”
Maybe from where he sits. But from the driver’s seat of the cars that navigate the interchange daily, nothing could be smarter than getting its replacement funded and under way.
And don’t forget that Wichitans represent more than 76 percent of Sedgwick County’s population, making such disputes about who should pay for such regional projects seem pointless to much of the public. The interchange may fall within the city limits but is hardly a city-only issue, serving many commuters who live out in the county and work in Wichita and also facilitating the entire region’s economic activity.
“High-traffic road. Everybody uses it. We’re county commissioners. Part of our responsibility is to help with this type of infrastructure needs,” Commissioner Dave Unruh said, noting the county’s role in the interchange is part of a long-range plan and partnership with the city.
For its part, the city of Wichita is providing local matching money for the Kellogg freeway at Webb and Greenwich roads, and has approved $50 million for a new Big Ditch bridge to connect I-235 to West 13th Street.
Before the 2-2 vote on the interchange, Ranzau and Peterjohn also blocked $40,000 in funding for Visioneering, an 8-year-old collaborative community engagement effort co-founded and spearheaded by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. Peterjohn and Ranzau suggested Visioneering duplicates other efforts, with Ranzau labeling it “largely ineffective.” Never mind that Visioneering has brought together 17,000 citizens to work on strengthening the economy, retaining young people, improving health and family stability and much more – and that the latest funding already was approved as part of the county’s 2013 budget.
Both the interchange and Visioneering deadlocked because of the absence of Commissioner Jim Skelton. Their approval seems assured once he’s back on the bench, though Ranzau said Friday he also might support the interchange if the county could use cash and avoid bond funding.
But last week provided a depressing gauge of Sedgwick County’s commitment to being a reliable regional partner, coming down to one swing vote.