I-235 work to take 2 years

Bill Barnes stood looking at the entrances to the Sedgwick County Park that would be moved with a new exit ramp and bridge connecting I-235 to 13th Street.

"That's not much of an impact," said Barnes, who lives near the park, during a public meeting for residents to see the new highway design Monday night.

Although changing a few entrances to the park seems small, Barnes said he knows how big of an impact it will have on traffic and safety for Zoo Boulevard, the next exit north. Barnes used to be supervisor of the Sedgwick County Emergency Medical Services.

"We saw a lot of accidents on that Zoo ramp," Barnes said. "This is a good thing. And it's been along time in coming."

The $50 million link between I-235 and 13th will alleviate the traffic jams on Zoo Boulevard familiar to west Wichita residents, engineers say.

The city hopes to break ground later this year and complete the project within two years.

It's been in the works since about 1992.

About 39,000 cars drive on Zoo each day — more than travel on I-235 just to the north of that exit, said Jim Armour, city engineer.

For years, the city of Wichita has searched for ways to relieve traffic congestion.

Numerous improvements widened Zoo Boulevard under I-235 and expanded the bridge over the Big Ditch in the late 1990s. But traffic still snarled.

In 2000, homeowners protested a proposal for a 13th Street bridge, and two years later a citizens task force recommended the new access go in at 25th Street.

In 2001, city engineers said 25th Street was the least expensive and would disrupt fewer home owners. But it never came to fruition.

"None of the other projects ever had a champion," said Mike Jacobs, special project engineer. "In 2007, it (13th) got a champion in Jim Armour."

That's the year the city began pursuing an option for providing an exit ramp from northbound I-235 that would cross the Big Ditch and connect to 13th Street on the west side.

Traffic studies used 45 counters and three video cameras. It showed a third of the traffic was coming in the morning from people traveling east on Zoo, then south on I-235. In the evening, the largest flow of traffic moved in the opposite direction.

That led to the current plan, which is a partial interchange. A full interchange isn't possible at I-235 and 13th Street because of the proximity to the existing exit at Zoo Boulevard.

City engineers looked at more than a dozen different plans, studying impact on the highway, work time and traffic patterns. The result: the partial interchange was the best, Jacobs said.

Not everyone is happy.

Jo Eslinger has lived off 13th Street for the past 13 years, and said she hasn't had any problems driving. She sees the project as a waste of money.

"It would be nice to have, but this is the kind of thing you spend money on when you have money — we don't," Eslinger said of the tightening government budgets.

Eslinger said she'd rather see potholes fixed and more homeless shelters.

"When you can't afford to buy cake, you go to the day-old store and buy bread," Eslinger said.

Others voiced concern about how it would affect property values, and one group of residents off the interstate wondered if they could have a sound wall installed as part of the project.

But mostly, those coming to the meeting at the Sedgwick County Extension Center favored the project.

"It's something Wichita has needed for a very long time," Armour said.

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