Siding with KDOT's safety argument and engineering expertise, the Dodge City Commission backs the U.S. 50 expansion plan past the Point of Rocks.
The Dodge City Commission made official its support for the state's recommendation on the size of the median that should be built as U.S. 50 is expanded past the Point of Rocks rock formation west of the city.
The City Commission unanimously supported the option that would build the four-lane expressway with a 60-foot grass median. Kansas Department of Transportation engineers have said it would be the safest of the feasible options and their recommendation for the road project. The commissioners agreed that safety was their primary concern in making their recommendations.
"I'm not here to destroy history by any means, but I've lived here 50 years and I'd never heard of the Point of Rocks—and I've driven out there for years—until the silhouettes were put up there," said Commissioner Jim Lembright. "If the silhouettes were not there would people be going up to the Point of Rocks?"
The cowboy silhouette sign to the west of the city, one of a pair owned by the city, sits atop the Point of Rocks. Jack Fox, the landowner who owns the rock formation, said he would not renew the lease with the city if the 60-foot median is ultimately selected by KDOT.
"I'm all about safety," Lembright said. "That's number one. Accidents are going to happen regardless of what's out there, but I'm going to go with the state on that one."
Commissioner Brian Delzeit agreed. There were two options, he said: save the rocks or "save human lives."
A modern tractor-trailers is a "steel projectile at 75 miles per hour," Delzeit said. "Give me all the distance you can give me. If the engineers are telling us the maximum safety factor is 60 foot, then build it at 60 foot."
A third option, that KDOT build the road and stop west of the Point of Rocks and wait for possible future funding to finish the expansion along a northern route, would be imprudent, Mayor Kent Smoll said.
At a previous meeting, KDOT engineer Larry Thompson said it would be the best solution, but would require more funding than is available or would conceivably be available in the future. The main advantage, he said, is that it would allow the department to build a new junction with U.S. 400.
"We're kind of stuck between a rock and a railroad," Smoll said, though he added that he thinks either median option would likely work. "I'm sorry about the Point of Rocks, but we can't build it south."
His main concern, he said, was keeping the funding for a project that had been hard-fought to win years ago.
"The worse thing we can do is not support KDOT in getting this project done. If we mess around and don't support a project, those funds will be used somewhere else. This road will be here 60, 70, 80 years, if we can build it right the first time we're better off," Smoll said.
Commissioner Rick Sowers asked why the opinions of politicians had any weight in the design process.
"Please let an engineer make this decision," he told the KDOT delegation. "It scares me a little bit when political people are making engineering decisions on a highway we have to live with for 50 years."
Political meddling in the construction of 14th Avenue caused him to seek office the first time, he said.
In the past, KDOT did not seek input from the public and local elected officials that were affected by road projects, Thompson said, but as a cabinet level department, "It's important to KDOT that it's a project that is supported in the region, and since it's right here in your front yard, it is your region. ... We know it's needed, but we want to deliver a project that is wanted."
As evidence of the impact of local opinions, early drafts of the project plans would have completely removed the Point of Rocks.
Western Heritage groups, including the Santa Fe Trail Association and the Great Western Cattle Trail Association have lobbied intensely for the 16-foot median. Both the Dodge City and Ford County commissions have said they've received many phone calls and messages from constituents and other western history buffs imploring them to save as much of the rock formation as possible.
With either plan, the face of the sandstone formation that was once used as a navigational aid across the plains will be dramatically altered and replaced with a stylized retaining wall.
Construction of the $69 million expansion of U.S. 50 from Dodge City to Cimarron will begin in spring of 2018 and is expected to be finished in the fall of 2019.