Rail overpass not a south-side slight

Now that drivers and businesses at last are enjoying the $105 million railroad overpasses north of downtown, City Hall's second thoughts about a long-planned overpass at Pawnee and Mead may strike some as the latest of many south-side slights.

But city officials have a responsibility to ensure that plans fit the times and will fill the need. And Vice Mayor Jim Skelton, who represents the area, makes a strong case that "the right decision is to build the overpass that carries far more trains per day, will go over far more intersections" and makes the most sense for public safety and fiscal responsibility — which would be at Pawnee and Hydraulic.

The latter crossing carries 38 trains a day and has the highest hazard rating of any of the 50 crossings in the metropolitan area; the Pawnee-Mead crossing carries about seven trains a day and is 27th most hazardous.

The change of plans risks riling taxpayers, because it means the city may have acquired $6.4 million in Pawnee-Mead properties for nothing. But "I can't help that," Skelton told The Eagle editorial board Tuesday, noting the purchases happened years ago.

He supports hanging onto the properties for now, while consultant TranSystems explores whether Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe could use a unified corridor through the area. "If we do not build the overpass there, we sell them," he said.

As for the impression that south Wichita still goes without while other parts of town get whatever they want, the area has needs, of course. But recent south-side improvements have included the South City fire station near Hydraulic and Denker, which had its ribbon cutting in August; an ongoing reconstruction of Oliver south of Kellogg to Harry; and an upgrade that made Mount Vernon east of Broadway one of the few surface streets in Wichita with bike lanes.

The most visible use of federal stimulus money in town will be at I-135 and 47th Street South near the Kansas Turnpike, with a two-year, $16.1 million rebuilding of the interchange that newly has developers pursuing major retail, entertainment and hotel projects nearby.

Skelton also pointed to drainage improvements, landscaping and better code enforcement in his district — the kinds of fundamental changes that can bolster a community's property values and spirit, as well as quality of life.

Seeing the city put the brakes on a long-promised rail overpass will give some south-side residents pause. But Skelton and others at the city deserve credit for trying to put overpasses where they will do the most good.