Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) is considering a re-build of the Polk-Quincy Viaduct, the stretch of Interstate 70 which cuts a swooshing, 90-degree turn through downtown Topeka. This section is among some of the oldest interstate infrastructure in the U.S., and its curve is one of the most crash-prone sections of I-70 in the country. KDOT considered 17 alternative designs for this project.

Roughly the area of concern, highlighted in red-orange.

The “preferred alternative” re-build project would re-align the curves to modern highway standards, and rebuild the sections of the highway that are in question, including bridges, on-ramps/off-ramps, as well as the sections of the highway that are at, or below street level.

KDOT’s “Preferred Alternative” design of the corridor.

The red lines and green lines are frontage roads / access roads that would be added. These would be precursors to the on-ramps for the highway. If you’ve spent much time in Wichita, this would be similar to the combination of Kellogg and Highway 54 / 400. At the intersection of Rock Rd. and Kellogg in Wichita, there are 10 north-south lanes crossing 12 east-west lanes.

Here’s the highway in the middle of Kellogg in Wichita, looking west. Downtown Topeka could look just like this.

While KDOT considered 17 different design possibilities for the re-construction of this part of the highway, there is one possibility they did not consider.

Rochester, NY had a section of highway that cut through their downtown area. With that project, they decided to close the highway, fill it in, rebuild their old city streets, and give the land back to space for people to live and work.

Rochester is rebuilding their city, instead of rebuilding the highway. What a beautiful solution to this complex problem.

Introducing: Alternative #18.

What do we mean, specifically? KDOT studied 17 possibilities for changing the Polk-Quincy Viaduct, so we are offering this brand new possibility, and calling it Alternative 18. It would look a lot like the photo of Rochester, and would involve closure of this section of highway, and reconstruction of the downtown grid.

This isn’t a wild, or new idea. Even our neighbors in St. Louis have considered the prospect of turning a higway into a boulevard.

Many cities have done, or are considering similar:

Why are we spending millions of dollars right now to build a downtown plaza? We see the value of placemaking. We understand that to embrace a place, people need to feel a sense of belonging, and community. What we don’t need is a 10-lane x 12-lane highway and frontage-road interchange, right next to our gathering place. Have you ever felt warm and fuzzy about a highway?

Evergy Plaza is currently under construction. Ice skaters will be lulled by the sound of four lanes of highway traffic in each direction, at all hours of the day and night.

Streets, roads, and infrastructure are important. We’ve got to get people and goods into and out of our community. And we are rich with motor vehicle access. Topeka has the incredible advantage of having two major highways that pass through the city. The highway that goes through South Topeka, I-470, is a perfect option for traffic that’s just passing through the area. Right now, while both highways exist and encircle downtown, Google shows a minimal difference between using one or the other.

Follow the blue route. It takes about the same amount of time to drive that section as it does to drive the grey route through downtown

See, Google knows. We already have good infrastructure. We just have to use it better. And we can do much better than sending thousands of vehicles a day through our downtown. We might even find that if we make it a more pleasant place to be — that we’ll start sending more people into downtown to stay, and have a good time. We’re grading on a totally different template: Quality of life.

Alternative #18 is the best plan:

  • Cost savings of more than $300 million. Rochester’s project cost about $20 million – far less than maintaining or rebuilding highway.
  • Did we mention that we’re saving the state $300 million? This project has stalled because KDOT doesn’t have that kind of money.
  • Safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. Slowing down driving speeds is literally life-saving for pedestrians and cyclists. Downtown has the highest concentration of pedestrian traffic in Shawnee County.
  • Encourages development of land downtown. The project has already had a chilling effect (PDF) on downtown development. That’s the opposite of what we need.
  • I-470 is a great alternate highway option. The highway that connects to I-35 south of town also connects to Highway 75 north of town. It also loops the city and provides a perfect alternative for through-traffic. Not only that, but it’s newer and smoother.
  • Preventing future traffic challenges. When you build more roads, you get more traffic. Rebuilding this section of I-70 would likely cause more traffic, and contribute to greater maintenance costs in the future.
  • Reclaiming acreage for downtown development. Millions of dollars in public and private investment have been poured into downtown in the last few years. That means hundreds of thousands more will be collected in property taxes by the City and County. Downtown has the best performing land in terms of revenue collected per acre. Why not invest in that?

For future prosperity in Topeka and Shawnee County, Alternative #18 is the absolute best option for managing the Polk-Quincy Viaduct problem.

Get involved with promoting this project by dropping a note in the comments, or sending us an email at info@biketopeka.com.