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Transportation

Northwest Bypass Could Energize West Wichita, If It's Ever Built

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Hugo Phan
/
KMUW
The Northwest Bypass project would loop K-96 down to west Kellogg. But years into the project, little progress has been made.

A massive highway project has the potential to transform much of west Wichita.

The Northwest Bypass would extend K-96 from near 45th and Maize Road to Kellogg, just east of Goddard.

The question is: Will it ever be built?

The Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) has been buying property for the project since 2006 but only has acquired a third of the needed right-of-way.

The problem so far? It’s pretty obvious.

“The biggest thing right now is funding,” said Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis, who represents west Wichita and west Sedgwick County.

“So, the funding is a key issue,” said Maize City Administrator Richard LaMunyon.

“It's difficult to put all those funds together,” said KDOT spokesman Tom Hein.

Buying the needed property for the 12-mile stretch of road is expected to cost about $50 million. The county and KDOT have each agreed to contribute up to $1 million annually for the next five years. Earlier this month, the cities of Goddard and Maize agreed to continue contributing $5,000 a year.

After the property is acquired comes the challenge of finding money for the construction phase, which will cost upward of half a billion dollars.

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Funding problems aside, there’s no question what the economic impact would be from a highway that connects west and east Wichita. One KDOT projection estimated it at nearly $900 million.

“I am very excited with this project because if you look at what happened with the Northeast Expressway on K-96 … where every major interchange is now a commercial development, everything in between the major interchanges is now churches, schools and homes,” said Dennis, the county commissioner. “We're going to see the same exact growth on the west side. We just need to build this.”

Proponents of the project cite the economic benefits the expansion of K-96 brought to east Wichita. But the project there, which was completed in the early 1990s, had a big advantage: the land for the highway was donated by Charles Koch and developer George Ablah.

The Northwest Bypass won’t be so lucky. But Schellenberg Development Company president Marvin Schellenberg said that doesn’t make the project any less critical.

His company has built commercial and residential projects in west Wichita for the last 30 years, like Reflection Ridge and New Market Square.

“I think anytime you can bring a loop that brings people together, you just see more developments,” Schellenberg said. “For me, I think it's an important thing for not just the west side, but for Wichita as a whole.”

But first there’s that whole funding thing to figure out. Dennis said local officials are exploring to see whether federal funds might be available for the project. And he said the state is studying the option of making it a toll road, like the Kansas Turnpike, to help it pay for itself.

KDOT itself has a limited budget for projects around the state.

When it selects a project – with input from local elected officials – chief among its concerns are enhancing safety, improving traffic flow and maintaining current infrastructure. That’s happening now at the $250 million dollar North Junction project in Wichita, where four major highways come together.

While the Northwest Bypass also will help with traffic flow and safety, it’s chiefly an economic development project. That makes putting a timeline on its completion difficult.

“I don't know exactly how that's going to happen because those other priorities across the state and locally here in the Wichita metro … never seem to go away,’’ said Hein, the KDOT spokesman. “In fact, they would multiply.

“So dedicating large chunks of money to something that has never been built is a difficult process because you don't see anything for that expenditure for so many years.”

Even without the Northwest Bypass, west Wichita has grown substantially in the last 20 years. Most amenities you can find in east Wichita are now available on the west side.

Richard LaMunyon, the city administrator for Maize, said his city has 1,500 homes under construction or planned over the next four to five years. It continues to be one of the fastest growing cities in the state.

He said Maize supports the Northwest Bypass project. But he adds that the longer the project drags on, the more difficult it will be to complete.

“It's something that should happen or could happen,” LaMunyon said. “The reality is that I'm just not sure it will happen.

“Right now, as you look down the road, … it's more like you're looking past your headlights. You can't see what's ahead of you.

“And, right now it, it looks pretty dark.”