Members of the Joint Legislative Transportation Vision Task Force heard pleas to finish improvements on a dangerous section of highway in Phillips and Norton counties Wednesday.
In the afternoon’s public commentary section, several officials from Phillips County spoke of the need to finish modernizing a 27-mile stretch of Kansas Highway 383 that connects U.S. Highway 36 about 7 miles east of Norton with U.S. Highway 183 near the state line east of Woodruff in Phillips County.
“Both the Norton and Phillips county sheriffs recognize this as the most dangerous road in the area,” Nick Poels, executive director of Phillips County Economic Development, told the 31 members of task force.
The task force, which consists of legislators and other state government officials, local government officials and private industry representatives, met in Hays Wednesday, one of a series of meetings it’s had across the state.
The task force will reconvene later in the year and prepare recommendations to the Legislature for a plan to meet transportation needs over the next decade or more.
“Suicide Corner” is a term Ken Tharman, superintendent of USD 212 Northern Valley in Almena, said he became familiar with after moving to Long Island in 1991 to farm with his in-laws.
The term actually refers to the intersection of Kansas 383 and County Road 700, he said. To the west, a driver turning off the county road can see about an eighth of a mile, but to the east, can see only about 100 yards.
“When you are turning onto the road there, you are basically taking your life in your own hands, hence the name,” he said.
The highway is often used by farmers driving large equipment that can travel only 20 to 25 mph, he said. The highway, built in the 1930s, is 24 feet wide with no shoulders over steep hills.
“When they have to move over for other vehicles, they actually have to get off the road,” Tharman said of the farmers. “There is no room to hug the side of the road and allow others to go by.”
Poels and Mike Posson, executive director of Norton City/County economic development, prepared a summary of the dangers the highway poses:
• An $8 million T-works project improved eight bridges on the highway, but it still lacks shoulders, reflective signs on curves and guardrails for drop-offs. The final stages of the project were in the works, with bid letting scheduled this year for Phillips County and next year for Norton County, but those plans have been postponed due to lack of funds.
• Sheriff’s reports from Norton and Phillips County since 2013 show 151 accidents on the highway, including two fatalities and 13 injuries.
• According to Kansas Department of Transportation traffic flow maps, total volume of traffic on the highway in the last five years has increased almost 55 percent in Norton County, and 63 percent in Phillips County.
• Heavy commercial traffic volume has increased by 45 percent in Norton County and by 20 percent in Phillips County in that time.
“One of the factors for this increase in commercial traffic is the fact the rail service in the area has slowed,” Poels said.
Cattle, grain and manufactured goods that once were moved by rail are now transported over the road, he said, and Kansas 383 is part of the shortest highway route between Garden City and Omaha.
In addition, the increase in wind farm projects across the region brings trucks with large turbine parts, Poels said.
Phillips County Commissioner William Greving told the task force hog production has also increased in the Long Island and Almena areas.
Landowners along 12 miles of the highway are working to obtain the right of way for an abandoned railway, Greving said, to make it available to the state to aid the project.
He proposed dividing the project into three sections rather than two to spread out the expense over a greater amount of time and give the landowners more time to purchase the railroad land.
Greving concluded his testimony by noting in 2010, Reader’s Digest conducted a study of the country’s best highways.
“It was the great state of Kansas,” that was ranked No. 1, he said. “I would ask this standard be maintained.”