Construction could start by mid-2021 on the $10.8 million Northwest Business Corridor project at the northwest edge of Hays.

“We’re generally probably a couple years out from that road being complete,” said Buck Driggs, a project engineer who was hired in May to help Ellis County win federal money for the big project that will improve three heavily traveled county roads in a busy industrial area.

“My guess is we’ll probably have a year of construction,” Driggs said, noting that Driggs Design Group P.A., Manhattan, is wrapping up details of a $6.5 million Federal Highway Administration grant just awarded for the project.

“They want to obligate the funds by June 2021,” he said, saying that is the deadline to have the plans to a point they are ready to go to bid. Construction could start soon after.

Driggs and other city, county and state transportation and public works officials spoke Tuesday evening to residents and landholders affected by the project.

About 30 people attended a meeting at the Schenk Building at the Ellis County Fairgrounds, near Interstate 70’s Exit 157, the epicenter for Phase 1 of the project.

The meeting was called, said Ellis County Public Works director Bill Ring, to keep everyone informed.

“We want this to be an extremely transparent project. We don’t want there to be any misgivings, misunderstandings, we want everyone to know what’s happening,” Ring said.

The Northwest Business Corridor project will also improve the Exit 157 intersection where on- and off-ramps to I-70 converge with 230th Avenue.

Ring said information about the project is on the county’s website at EllisCo.net under “About Us.” It includes a video captured by a GoPro camera on the bumper of a truck to convey the hilly, narrow profiles of 230th and 55th streets and Feedlot Road.

Besides serving as a US-183 highway bypass for trucks avoiding Vine Street, the network of chalk county roads are the access for some homes and businesses, including major oilfield supply manufacturer Hess Services. Hess has 360 employees and a steady stream of semi tractor-trailer rigs driving in and out of its plant, hauling equipment to and from buyers in North Dakota, Colorado and Texas.

“We’re going to call this Transparency Road, because I want it to be that because I live here too and I want everybody to be as comfortable as they can be with the overall project,” Ring said.

Driggs said no preliminary design work has been done, only some preliminary engineering on a small portion to enable Ellis County to get the federal grant and a cost estimate.

Other funding includes $1.5 million from the Kansas Department of Transportation, plus $300,000 contributed by Hess, with Ellis County working to come up with the rest.

The federal money is a U.S. Department of Transportation Build discretionary grant. The grants are investments in surface transportation infrastructure to better connect rural and urban communities. Of 688 Build grants submitted nationwide in 2019, the Hays corridor project was one of only 19 selected for funding.

The Build money will be obligated after the county meets a series of federal requirements pertaining to design, right-of-way acquisition and other preliminary work.

Phase 1 calls for improvements to the on- and off-ramps from I-70 at Exit 157 to the north edge of Celebration Community Church. That is tied to a 40-acre Travel Plaza development, with Hess an investor, which will include a variety of commercial projects, including two hotels, Driggs said.

The site was recently annexed by the city of Hays for a tie-in to city utilities. The developers are seeking approval from Hays for tax incentives to help recoup some development costs. Construction on the Travel Plaza could start this summer, Driggs said.

Second phase is the Northwest Business Corridor project.

A new bypass should divert a lot of the traffic on US-183 away from Vine, especially the frequent superloads that come through Ellis County, Ring said, characterizing them as super-oversized trucks weighing 567,000 pounds or more and about three times bigger than a normal 53-foot trailer.

The bypass also solves the problem of loads taller than 15 feet and 8 inches that can’t travel under the overpass now at Vine and I-70.

“It’s very restrictive what can go up Vine Street,” he said. “If it’s too tall, if it’s 16 foot, it has to find another way around, and because 183 runs from the Dakotas all the way to Texas, it’s a main thoroughfare. All summer long you see the farm traffic, the custom cutters, the combines, run up and down that road.”

The Northwest Business Corridor concept is a north-south 183 bypass around Hays at a steady 55 mph, avoiding Vine Street and all its stoplights.

“There’ll be nothing to stop you 'til you get to the four-way stop at the south end of town,” Ring said. “A much easier, faster, convenient route than going through all those stops.”

One person in the audience pointed out that the existing US-183 bypass has a narrow bridge over I-70.

“I don’t know the width offhand,” said Kevin Zimmer, KDOT area engineer for District III, who was at the meeting. “But you are correct, it’s narrow width-wise, and also load-rated as well. So from a KDOT standpoint, we’re aware of what’s going on, so we’ve accelerated and are looking at possible bridge replacement to facilitate the rest of this work that’s going on.”

The design for north-south chalk road 230th, from Exit 157 at its south end to Feedlot Road at the north, will be two 12-foot lanes with 8-foot shoulders and 4-to-1 ditch sections to a flat bottom and back up, Driggs said. So for every one foot of vertical fall there will be 4 feet of vertical length, he explained.

Turning lanes at existing entrances haven’t been looked at yet, but plans will keep in mind oil well locations, driveway locations and houses to minimize impact, Driggs said.

Instead of the existing two-way stop at 230th and Feedlot, those two roads will be joined by a big curve with a 55 mph speed limit.

“One concept was a tight curve, it was really a minimum-release curve we could take through that intersection in order to maintain free-flow traffic,” Driggs said. “What that did was cut really close, if not through, some of the houses up there. It wasn’t our preferred concept, it was just one we wanted to show to kind of show the minimum radius.”

For the intersection at US-183 and Feedlot, Driggs said he expects a dedicated right turn lane southbound, and probably a left turn lane northbound.

“There might be some changes to the turning radiuses,” he said, “but we do envision there being some improvements to that intersection.”

Feedlot Road will be widened from US-183 west to the curve at 230th, with no plans to widen it beyond that.

The bypass project will overlap a little with the $9.3 million Vine Street roundabouts project that the city of Hays is starting this May or June, said Hays project manager John Braun, who was at the Schenk meeting. Construction will get underway in 2020, with completion by the fall of 2021, Braun said.

Ring and Driggs said there will be more meetings to keep people informed about planning and construction.

“We won’t close off any access to you guys, we’ll work with you throughout construction to maintain access so you can get in and out of your property,” Driggs said.