Topeka, like many cities, is immured in a ring of ailing interstate highways. This network of roads had lofty goals at its onset, but its effects have produced unintended consequences.
The Polk-Quincy Viaduct in Topeka is particularly perplexing. Why, in the 1960s, would the City of Topeka agree to route a highway through the center of its densely-peopled downtown corridor? Surely it wasn’t meant to decimate the core of black-owned businesses east of Kansas Avenue between the river and 6th Street — but that’s what it effectively did.
In the process of Urban Renewal (or Urban Removal), Topeka lost out on property tax revenue for hundreds of acres of land, in the name of un-taxable state right-of-way and the lure of tourism-driven sales-tax dollars.
Political missteps aside, we have an opportunity to discuss. Design standards in the 60s were not as stringent as today’s, and in the last decade, the state Department of Transportation has determined that the Polk-Quincy Viaduct section of I-70 is one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the country.
What’s proposed by KDOT is a redesign.
What’s proposed here is abandonment.
Could this be the New Topeka?
Take another glance at the map. What is achieved by I-70 that is not achieved by I-470? Here’s a list: convoluted access to US-75, induced demand and excessive congestion between downtown and West Topeka (frequently bottle-necking at MacVicar), and a whole lot of expensive highway roads to maintain all year and in all weather indefinitely into the future.
If we want to make the highway safer, reduce our burden of infrastructure maintenance, and improve the ability to collect sustainable property taxes, let’s close I-70 from K-4 highway to US-75 highway.
We’ll route through-traffic to the smoother and newer I-470 south of town. We’ll reclaim a ton of territory for our strong central neighborhoods and the steadily-growing downtown corridor. We’ll improve property values along the whole route. And Kansas can free up part of its $1 billion highway budget to tackle a few of the 347 substandard bridges in the state.
There’s a lot of value in the study produced by KDOT and the Metropolitan Topeka Planning Organization. It discusses the purpose and need for a change along the route, as well as some alternatives. But the underlying assumption of the study is that the highway is needed. That’s the idea we’re challenging.
Page 11 from the PQVS shows an aerial view of the highway cutting downtown in two halves, and a detailed map of the study area.
There are great, low-cost alternatives to bulldozing the disused highway bridges and below-grade sections. How about a raised public park, like the Highline in New York City, or the 606 in Chicago?
And for the below-grade sections through downtown, how about a downtown riverwalk and canal?
Bricktown canal and Bricktown Water Taxi in Oklahoma City. Photo Credit: KB35 via Compfight. cc
This sounds like a radical solution, but it is not made in jest. Our highways are expensive. It has been decades since the gas tax fully replenished the Highway Trust Fund. All roads are heavily subsidized. Highways simply don’t pay for themselves.
Knowing that, why would we propose to spend $200 million to correct a design error on a 50-year-old highway and further displace downtown residents and businesses, rather than look for creative, time-tested, and less-expensive solutions? It sounds a lot more radical to fix the old highway than to look for a proven alternative.