After many phone calls and emails from "save the rocks" supporters, the Ford County commission has tentatively backed the U.S. 50 expansion option that protects more of the Point of Rocks.
Following a multitude of phone calls and emails from their Ford County constituents, the Commission has given its tentative support for a smaller median as the upcoming expansion of U.S. 50 passes by the Point of Rocks sandstone formation.
The option to build a 16-foot median is not the one recommended by Kansas Department of Transportation engineers, which would prefer a 60-foot grass median when the road between Dodge City and Cimarron is expanded to four lanes starting in 2018.
The creation of both options by KDOT was part of a compromise offered by the agency after meeting with western heritage advocates who have lobbied and sought public support to preserve the Point of Rocks.
Safety is a legitimate concern and one the Commission takes seriously, Commissioner Shawn Tasset said, but "Dodge City has a heritage."
"We keep chipping away at things like this that make the town what it is, make the county what it is. It happened with the construction of the railroad and the construction of the highway to begin with," Tasset said. "When do we stop?"
"I'm all for being safe, but a 16-foot median, which seems to work really well in so many parts of the state, and it's something we can't get away from with the overpass anyway, extending it a mile and a quarter past a thing that seems very important to our heritage doesn't seem that big of a thing for me to ask."
The budget for the $69 million road project will not allow for rebuilding the overpass at the junction with U.S. 400, KDOT engineers have said.
There is a third, riskier option, said KDOT engineer Larry Thompson, which is to build the road from Cimarron as designed, but wait for future funding to build a northern route. In the past Thompson said it would allow KDOT build a better junction with U.S. 400, but doubts future availability of the $15 million to $20 million the plan would require.
"That looks like a futuristic plan for Dodge City," Tasset said. "That looks like we're looking to the future, not trying to stuff something into the little bit of space we have now. I realize that is a delayed gratification thing."
"There's a risk that'd never come, right?" County Chairman Chris Boys asked Thompson.
"It's possible," Thompson replied.
"I was amazed we got three (projects) in a row" in his district, Thompson said, "I'd be amazed if we got four in a row."
Setting lower, or "artificial" speed limits, a question asked several times throughout the public-involvement process, does not work, Thompson said. Most speed limits are set by determining the speed a majority of travelers are comfortable driving on the road.
Speed limits are treated as a recommendation when a law officer isn't present, Thompson said.
County Administrator Ed Elam told the Commission it was a significant effort with the assistance of the Southwest Kansas Coalition, a joint government policy group, to get the project funded.
"We were in (discussions) for two years with Seward County and Finney County and others to get it up to the level where it is," Elam said. "It wasn't just a standalone project; it was a lot of long negotiations and a lot of meetings."
As the discussions were made during a work session, the County Commission could not make an official vote or pass a resolution in support of an option. That will occur at a future meeting. Later that night, the Dodge City Commission passed a resolution supporting a 60-foot median, citing safety and the expertise of KDOT engineers as reasons for the vote.
Neither the city nor the county commissions will be making the final decision, but their opinions are sought by KDOT. As a cabinet agency, it is not immune from political pressures, Thompson said.
"There was a time when that wouldn't have made a difference to KDOT. We've changed," Thompson said. "Secretary (Deb) Miller changed the way we do business."
The new way of planning projects focuses on getting local buy-in, he said, the projects are needed, but KDOT would like to see they are wanted, as well.
Boys said he will side with the public response which has been overwhelmingly to save the Point of Rocks as much as feasible, though an ideal solution would involve the northern route.
Either plan would cut into the rock formation and replace the face with a styled retaining wall. Landowner Jack Fox, who owns the Point of Rocks, said he would not renew the city's lease for displaying the Dodge City cowboy silhouette sign that sits on the formation if the 60-foot median is chosen.