KDOT has produced two versions of a plan that would mitigate the impact of the upcoming US-50 expansion.
The Kansas Department of Transportation has been pitching two compromise options that would partially protect the Point of Rocks sandstone formation during the upcoming expansion of US-50 between Dodge City and Cimarron.
The original plans for the $69 million road expansion, which will double the number of lanes and add a grass median, would have almost completely leveled the rock formation that was once used as a navigational aid along the Santa Fe Trail.
Both options would require cutting into the rock and both options include a faux stone retaining wall that would resemble the original sandstone. However, the option preferred by KDOT engineers would require more of the formation to be removed to make way for a 60-foot grass median between the eastbound and westbound lanes. This option would also require moving slightly north the cowboy silhouette sign that sits atop the Point of Rocks.
The second option uses a single roadbed with a 16-foot asphalt median between the eastbound and westbound lanes. The sign would still need to be protected or temporarily moved during construction, but could stay at its current location.
Both compromise options will add $500,000 to the cost of the project.
Members of the Santa Fe Trail and Great Western Cattle Trail associations, organizations that promote western heritage, prefer the second option. Both organizations, and a host of other history-minded groups and elected officials, have been vocal proponents of preserving the formation.
"We hate to see more of the rock go," said Bill Bunyan, the local Santa Fe Trail Association chapter president. "We have signed off on them taking the part of it they have to take."
Bunyan believes the 16-foot median option is a fair compromise considering that the road will have the 16-foot median as it passes underneath the US-400 overpass a mile and a half east of the Point of Rocks.
KDOT engineers presented both options to the Dodge City Commission at a work session on Jan. 6, stating that the option with the median would create a safer traffic flow. Setting a lower speed limit would not have the same effect, Thompson said, as speed limits are primarily set by taking into account driver behavior.
"We're just asking for another mile and a half," said Bunyan, who has met with KDOT five times during the planning process. "It'd let us have more of the Point of Rocks."
"It's a historical place," he added. "It's the gateway into Dodge City from the west."
"I understand the safety issue and I heard the engineers ... but what throws me is, they are doing the median out to the bridge, but no safety concerns there?"
Though the Dodge City Commissioners were not able to make an official recommendation during the work session, they expressed support for KDOT's argument for the wide grass median.
"We just need to be safer," said Mayor Kent Smoll. "That road is going to do nothing but have more traffic."
In 2011, 6,000 vehicles used the road daily, including a significant number of freight trucks. By 2018, when construction starts, 8,000 vehicles are projected to use the road per day. By 2038, usage is expected to increase to 11,000 per day.
Members of the Commission discussed building a rest area next to the location with historical information. Building a rest area would likely require funding from the city or from private donations.
"If we could memorialize it, that's probably as important as anything," Smoll said. "It'd be nice to have this as a nice rest area where people can get out and look around and take their pictures."
Building a rest area "makes it more of a tourist destination than it is now," Commissioner Rick Sowers said, and believes the city should work with the county to fund it. "I think that's something we as a community should take under our belt."
KDOT will soon give the same presentation to officials in Ford County. County Commissioner Chris Boys said the county generally supports the option with the 16-foot median. He said he's been receiving calls from around the state in support of preserving the Point of Rocks as much as possible.
"It's a lonely battle," Bunyan said of the heritage groups' attempts to save the Point of Rocks. Since the formation has been altered several times through the years, first with the Santa Fe rail line and later as the road was paved in 1926, expanded in 1935 and altered again in 1981, it does not qualify as an official historical site.
"We are happy they have compromised enough not to do the (original plan) and taking the whole darn rock," Bunyan said. "But, we'd like a little more."
Bunyan points to an online petition to preserve the formation, support from other history buffs and coverage from publications around the country as evidence that, official site or not, the Point of Rocks is worth saving.
"Despite the degradation, it remains an important landmark and the mitigation of impact should be considered," said KDOT engineer Larry Thompson.
KDOT has explored several other options that would have avoided attempting to thread the road between the rail line and the historical sites along the route.
One option would have shifted the route northward, avoiding both the Point of Rocks and the historical trail ruts further west.
"It has a lot of advantages, but it comes with a big disadvantage: it adds $15 million to the project cost," Thompson said. "That's pretty much off the table"
"Sixty-nine million sounds like a lot of money, but we're budget constrained," Thompson said.
By resurfacing the existing lanes and utilizing them for eastbound traffic, the project saves a significant amount of money, he said.
The amount of public involvement in the planning process has been unprecedented for the department, Thompson said, saying he welcomes the public involvement.
"This isn't just a KDOT project," he said. "It's a Dodge City project, a Cimarron project, a Ford county and a Gray County project."
For his part, Bunyan and other "history nuts like me" will be presenting their points of view at the City Commission meeting on Jan. 21.
"We're going to try to influence the city commissioners. Hopefully they'll think a little more about the point as being the gateway into the city," he said.