City hits the gas on road work

An engineer's report on U.S. 54 illustrates damage to the road base that is causing the surface to fail with increasing frequency. The total cost remains unknown, but previous estimates indicated it could cost more than $13 million.

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May 24, 2022 - 2:22 PM

Road borings show normal, left, and damaged subsurfaces. Courtesy photo

Iola officials have officially put a full rebuild of U.S. 54 through town on the city’s “to-do” list.

City Council members voted, 5-1, Monday to begin the lengthy process of first coming up with a design, determining how much such a project would cost, and then figuring out how to pay for it — and all the while, convincing Iolans why such a project is necessary.

Council members debated the highway project for more than an hour after receiving an engineer’s report that illustrated how a degraded road base is causing the road surface to fail with increasing frequency.

The engineer’s report was authorized by the Council in late 2020 after hearing then that a full rebuild would cost upwards of $13 million. The question — would it be feasible to continue doing mill and overlay repairs at a much lower cost than a full-scale rebuild?

Mike Caroll and Maggie Doll of the engineering firm Burns & McDonnell explained why doing the full rebuild was the better option.

As part of the engineering study, crews bored down to the base at 14 different locations along the roughly 1.3-mile stretch of highway.

Many borings showed signs of subsurface failure, with cracked concrete, clay and other material such as cinders, Caroll noted.

“Frankly, it’s not good,” City Administrator Matt Rehder concluded. “I’m not a road construction expert, but I do know a road is no better than its base. In some spots, the base isn’t even 2 feet deep before you’re getting into clay.”

Council members agreed, but noted two items in particular will need to be addressed early on in the process.

Councilman Carl Slaugh, who cast the lone dissenting vote against proceeding, said he agreed the road needed to be rebuilt, but first wanted to see how much it would cost, and how the city would pay for it.

“I guess I’m still caught up in the total cost,” Slaugh said, adding he was skeptical the city could pay for the project with sales tax revenues alone.

Slaugh suggested the city consider splitting the project into segments, perhaps two or three, and tackle the worst stretch of highway first.

Other Council members weren’t as receptive to his plan, noting that stretching out the process likely would do little to save money in the long run.

Additionally, they are leery of having road construction along the highway for several years causing long-lasting headaches for residents and merchants alike along U.S. 54.

Councilwoman Kim Peterson pointed to extended road construction projects in Chanute and Eureka that ultimately hurt businesses in those communities.

That led to Peterson’s other big concern: convincing a skeptical public.

“We’re gonna have to sell this to the public,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of people say we don’t need it.”

Mayor Steve French said the best tact would be to simply lay out the Burns & McDonnell report, which included photos of the borings that illustrate the road’s issues.

French encouraged the city to host a number of public meetings to keep residents and merchants well informed during the process.

He noted one downtown resurfacing project was supposed to last five to 10 years. But with the degraded base, the surface showed signs of cupping within two years.

Part of the funding questions can be answered by taking advantage of the Kansas Department of Transportation cost share program, Doll noted, in which the state would fund as much as 80% of the costs.

However, the competition for such funding can be intense, and cities that offer up a higher percentage of the cost share would likely have a better chance of success.

How much of a higher percentage is the question. Rehder said Iola would be best served if it could match 30% of the costs.

Doll was less specific, saying “something over 20%” is recommended.

Because the city already went through a bid process prior to hiring Burns & McDonnell to do the road study, Council members agreed with Rehder’s recommendation to utilize the firm in the initial stages of the design phase “to continue our forward momentum.”

Funds would come from the $1 million the city already has budgeted for design costs in a special highway projects fund.

When asked about a timeline, Rehder said it would likely be at least two years before the road work could begin.

Council members Nickolas Kinder and Joel Wicoff were absent from Monday’s meeting.

COUNCIL members adopted higher base gas rate and meter fees to help replenish the city’s dwindling gas utility fund.

Members voted 6-0 to authorize a $2.50 increase in monthly meter fees for residential customers, from $10.50 to $13, plus an additional 75 cents per unit of gas for the first 1,000 units, or cubic square feet. The cost would drop to $5 for every unit after that. The current rate plan costs customers $4 for every unit above 1,000 mcf. 

For perspective’s sake, Rehder said in April his last month’s utility bill reported 1,300 units of gas burned. 

Under the new rates, he would expect to pay about $10 more per month.

“I know it’s a tough one,” French said of the vote.

COUNCIL members also voted to allow bicycles on the skate park ramps at Riverside Park. 

“The kids are in there anyway (with bikes),” Councilman Lohman said. “This sets up a potential bad interaction with law enforcement that doesn’t need to be there.”

Still to be determined is if a fence surrounding the skate park should be removed.

While allowing bicycles on the ramps will increase the city’s liability insurance rates nominally (from $350 annually to $500), there would be no additional rate increase if the fence were taken down, Assistant City Administrator Corey Schinstock noted.

But without the fence, there are other safety concerns, including the park’s proximity to the old rail corridor that now holds the Southwind Trail on the east side of the park; and dangers with motorists utilizing nearby parking stalls.

Those issues will be looked at further, Rehder said.

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