The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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September 23, 2012

Pittsburg growth hinges on Highway 69 upgrade

PITTSBURG, Kan. — When a big truck hauling goods south from Kansas City gets south of Fort Scott, the driver runs out of four-lane highway.

By the time the truck gets to Arma, the road narrows even more, and the number of county road intersections — many spaced a quarter-mile or less apart — from which vehicles access the highway increases.

At the northern city limits of Pittsburg, the driver must lower his speed to 45 mph, turn onto the Highway 69 Bypass at the most heavily traveled intersection in Southeast Kansas, then navigate through four stoplights at major east-west arteries before getting past the southern city limits.

Those challenges limit the number of prospective businesses and services seeking to start in or move to the Pittsburg area, according to local advocates of the Crawford County Corridor for U.S. Highway 69. That, in turn, limits the future work force and quality of life, they say.

“It (the corridor) will be one of the last great pieces that needs to fall into place,” said Brad Hodson, vice president of university advancement at Pittsburg State University.

Officials with the Kansas Department of Transportation said Friday that the Crawford County Corridor, an 18-mile stretch of expressway from north of Arma south to the Cherokee County line, likely won’t be built for 30 years. The design has been funded, but the construction has not.

But construction on an 11-mile section from Fort Scott to Arma will begin in 2017, and that, Hodson said, will be accompanied by plenty of indirect benefits to Pittsburg.

The university has tracked an increase in enrollment from Johnson and Wyandotte counties that parallels the completion of four-lane construction from Overland Park to Fort Scott in the past decade.

According to PSU Registrar Debbie Greve, 44 students from Johnson County and 11 from Wyandotte County were enrolled in 1990. By 2000, there were 421 from Johnson County and 81 from Wyandotte County. By 2010, those numbers had jumped to 882 and 93.

“As parents and students have seen that highway become much more accessible, much safer, they have viewed Pittsburg State University as a better option than they did before that,” Hodson said. “Highway 69 has become much more of an asset to us than it was 15 years ago.”

‘Piece of the puzzle’

In 2011, Gov. Sam Brownback announced that $47 million would be spent on upgrading the two-lane section of Highway 69 from Fort Scott to Arma to a four-lane expressway as part of $190 million to be spent on transportation projects in Southeast Kansas. Revenue for the initiative is being generated from a four-tenths-cent sales tax.

Ken Brock, who founded the Pittsburg-based Names and Numbers telephone book company in 1974, said the Fort Scott-to-Arma section will indirectly help his company and the community.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle,” he said. “It demonstrates that there is a heart for prosperity in this community. A community that’s building roads and increasing its infrastructure is a good place to move to.”

Brock, who is president of the Highway 69 Association, has long been an advocate for the corridor. But he sees it as more than just helping travelers or goods get from one point to another faster and more safely. He also sees it as the key to economic development.

“What Names and Numbers needs most of all are good people,” he said. “So we’re working hard to recruit, attract, retain the best people we can find, because that’s the key to our growth. If we don’t have good people, we can’t grow.”

Having a town that is prosperous brings those people here, he said. That means additional places to shop, to eat and to seek medical care, and places for spouses to find employment. In short, growth.

“I’m talking to a person who lives in Houston, and I want him to move to Pittsburg, Kan.,” Brock said. “That’s a big change for his family, to come to a small, Southeast Kansas town from a large metropolitan area. We need to make Pittsburg attractive to that family. The prosperity, the beauty of the town, becomes very important. They have a quality of life expectation.”

Having a major interstate 20 miles to the east in Missouri doesn’t help Pittsburg any, he said.

“The economies of western Missouri and the economies of eastern Kansas are two different economies,” he said. “We can’t provide prosperity to Lamar and Nevada with a Highway 69 expansion. That won’t put jobs there. And the same is true vice versa. Remember, it’s about attracting businesses — not just travelers.”

And so Brock, who is 66, is in for the long haul when it comes to advocating for getting that Crawford County Corridor built.

“We have to have enough long-term heart for the community,” he said. “The people that did the heavy lifting to make Highway 69 that we enjoy today, it happened 30 years ago. We’re enjoying the fruits of their labor. They paid it forward to us. Now we have to pick up the ball and pay it forward for the next generation and continue the work they’ve started.

“I know it will be 15 years or more,” he said of the Crawford County Corridor. “But it will come in stages. First, we have to get Fort Scott to Arma built, and that will begin in 2017. That’s a start.”

Expressway features

KDOT officials who guided a media tour of that section Friday morning pointed out several key features of the planned upgradeable expressway.

“Our purpose is to improve safety, economic development, and reduce the fatality rate,” said KDOT representative James Dietzel. “What we’re designing and building is considered much safer than a two-lane rural highway.”

KDOT’s ultimate goal is to convert the section to a more expensive freeway when funding becomes available. Such a conversion will eliminate access points from side roads, which will increase safety, the department says.

Engineers are in the first stage of the design work for the expressway, which includes surveys and initial design options. Among the many considerations are about 70 properties that will be affected by the addition of two lanes and a median that ranges from 30 feet to 60 feet in spots.

At Calvary Road, a bridge would be needed over the expressway, and a retaining wall might be necessary to protect a church.

At 710th Avenue, engineers are considering shifting alignment to the north to utilize existing hills for bridge work in order to save money.

At 640th Avenue, also called South Street in Arma, the proximity of Ninth Street running parallel to Highway 69 might mean closing access to it between South Street and Perry Street. It’s already one of the most accident-prone places on the stretch of highway, according to Paul Moore, a consulting engineer.

And, several habitats have been identified along the route with numerous state and federal threatened and endangered species, including the broadhead skink, gray myotis, least tern, Mead’s milkweed, American burying beetle, spring peeper and plover. That may necessitate consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission.

About midway through the design work will be a field check, at which point engineers will identify the right of way needed and will contact property owners to discuss the impact. That field check most likely will be in July 2013, Dietzel said.

Also at that point, a final price tag will be determined based on those calculations.

Construction should take two years and would be finished in 2019.

Paving the way

Blake Benson, president of the Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Fort Scott-to-Arma section moves the area closer to the completion of the Crawford County Corridor, which “opens up possibilities that companies would like to locate here.”

There also are numerous existing industries, he said, that depend on efficient four-lane access to transport products, including distributors like Eagle Beverage and PepsiCo, and those that move oversized loads, such as Atkinson Industries.

Benson pointed to Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s near-completion of a $250,000 rail-to-truck complex between Gardner and Edgerton as a future opportunity.

“The trucks then have to get those goods from Gardner and Edgerton to (Wal-Mart in) Bentonville for their storage warehouse,” Benson said. “We’re right in the middle of that.”

That means an estimated 7,000 truck drivers every day will need to figure the best route south, he said.

“They’ll be looking for routes with less stoplights and less congestion,” Benson said. “They want a clean, open artery. So they can either choose Highway 69 or they can go to another state and choose another road. We feel like there is a great opportunity to get those trucks going through Southeast Kansas, which opens up other opportunities.”

Truckers will be stopping for fuel, coffee and meals, he said, which adds sales tax revenue to the city’s coffers.

Hodson, the Pittsburg State vice president, pointed out that PSU remains the only four-year Kansas Regents institution not on a four-lane highway, so he’ll keep pushing for the Crawford County Corridor. But he’s pleased with the progress on the stretch from Fort Scott to Arma.

“The indirect benefit is, as Pittsburg becomes stronger and a more vibrant business community because of Highway 69, Pittsburg State will benefit from that as well,” he said.

There will be additional jobs and internships available to students, post-collegiate employment, and more amenities for potential faculty members to consider before making a move.

And a proposed eventual link of Highway 69 to Interstate 44 would connect PSU with prospective students from Oklahoma and Northwest Arkansas, where the school has made gains in recent years by stepping up marketing and student recruitment efforts.

“If it’s easier for them to get here, they’ll be more likely to come,” Hodson said. “It will become a much more attractive option for those students to the south and east.”

Open house

A public open house is slated for 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13, at Northeast High School in Arma. The focus will be on the preliminary concepts for the Fort Scott-to-Arma section of Highway 69. Maps will be on display, and Kansas Department of Transportation representatives will answer questions.

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