County OKs money to fix I-235 interchange by 3-2 vote

They said they understood the need to fix the interchange at I-235 and Kellogg, but Sedgwick County Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau voted against putting up $11.6 million in a first phase of construction to do so.

They questioned why the city of Wichita isn't providing matching funds, and they voiced reservations about the timing, saying they had only nine days to consider the commitment.

A majority of commissioners — Tim Norton, Jim Skelton and Dave Unruh — voted to include the project in the county's capital improvement plan on Wednesday.

The first phase to improve the interchange would take southbound traffic from I-235 to eastbound Kellogg and northbound I-235 traffic to westbound Kellogg.

The state would provide $104.4 million for that phase, which would eliminate two cramped clover-leaf loops that have caused traffic accidents.

From 2004 to 2008, there were 243 accidents resulting in 79 injuries and one fatality at the interchange, according to the Kansas Department of Transportation.

More than 130,000 vehicles daily pass through the intersection in west Wichita.

The Department of Transportation would redesign the interchange and manage the project if it is chosen for the T-WORKS program, an $8.2 billion, 10-year transportation funding package approved by the Kansas Legislature last year.

The governor is to announce the next round of major state highway projects the week after Memorial Day.

The first phase of the interchange reconstruction would begin in 2016 and take three years to complete.

Although no one on the commission doubted the need for the project, some questioned why the county was being asked to ante up the money for it.

The city of Wichita is not helping fund the interchange. It has proposed providing a similar 10 percent match to continue extending Kellogg improvements through Webb Road and Greenwich Road on the east side.

Peterjohn challenged Wichita City Council member Jeff Longwell, who lives in Peterjohn's district, to pass a resolution stating that "Sedgwick County needs to provide county tax funds to help the city's highway projects in Wichita."

"I think Karl sometimes forgets people in his district live in Wichita," Longwell said Wednesday afternoon. "To coin this a city project, especially when it's an interstate highway and a federal highway coming together, is a pretty unfair assessment."

Norton, chairman of the Wichita Area Metropolitan Planning Organization focused on transportation issues for the area, said the county's commitment would help leverage state funds.

"I think it's imperative that we make sure this project gets done and we participate," Norton said. "I understand some of the angst that some of my fellow commissioners have."

Peterjohn focused repeatedly on the mixed message he believed some were sending by saying the project is the No. 1 transportation priority for the area when the city is earmarking its money for other projects.

"Why should it become a county highway project?" Peterjohn asked.

Ranzau said the county sets its mill levy "based on our responsibility to take care of roads in the county." The city, he said, "has money but they've elected to spend it on much lower priority things."

"This partnership seems to be very one-sided," Ranzau said, a day after a cantankerous meeting about the same project.

Skelton, a former City Council member, said he was "not going to stop this project because of intergovernmental bickering."

Ranzau countered: "I don't think voting 'no' will kill the project. The city of Wichita not spending the money kills the project."

Peterjohn said amending the capital improvement plan for a project that will stretch to 2018 is a "significant policy change. If we want to throw our rules out the window, I guess we can."

County attorney Rich Euson said that although the county's capital improvement plan typically covers five years, there was no legal reason the project couldn't be included.

Peterjohn said that "stretching a five-year plan into an eight-year plan . . . is a bridge this commissioner can't cross."

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