K-96 Improvements Project Will Enhance Safety and Reduce Congestion Throughout Corridor
The K-96 Improvements Project will expand the critical Wichita corridor, enhance safety and improve travel times to accommodate future growth and development.
Wednesday, April 19, 2023
Reading Time :
WSP USA is helping the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) enhance safety, improve capacity and relieve congestion on the heavily trafficked Kansas State Highway 96 (K-96) freeway in Wichita.
The K-96 Improvements Project will implement designs to improve more than nine miles of freeway between the Interstate 135 and Interstate 35 interchanges. The improvements include expanding the corridor from four to six lanes, pavement replacement, the reconfiguration of seven interchanges and adding safe connections for pedestrians and cyclists.
The $260 million project will accommodate rapid growth and new development throughout the corridor, in which daily vehicle users daily will grow from 50,000 to 100,000 by 2050.
“When K-96 was originally built in the mid-1990s, no one could have foreseen the development and growth that would occur,” said Jake Borchers, vice president and project manager for WSP. “These improvements are needed to continue to support and encourage growth in Wichita, and south-central Kansas.”
WSP is the prime consultant providing the following services: project management, communications/community engagement, environmental assessment, toll study, traffic engineering/design — including lighting, signing, intelligent traffic systems and traffic signals — bridge, roadway, drainage and pavement design.
Improvements include a series of diverging diamond interchanges that will decrease congestion significantly and enhance safety, including this rendering that shows the plan for the K-96 and 21st Street intersection east of Wichita.
Tiger Team Collaboration
Determining how to solve traffic issues throughout a highly congested and relied upon corridor, over nine miles long, with seven interchanges was no small feat, so Borchers launched a “tiger team” of specialists to tackle complex issues inherent within the corridor.
The tiger team included subconsultants, project partners and key stakeholders in the design development and decision-making process. This ensured that all parties’ ideas, thoughts and concerns were heard and addressed in the development of design alternatives.
One issue, for instance, is that between 2015-2020, an average of more than 200 vehicle crashes per year occurred along this stretch of highway.
From this team emerged an innovative proposal: a series of diverging diamond interchanges (DDIs) — coupled with roadway expansion and other interchange improvements — that will decrease congestion significantly and enhance safety. Other notable improvements are new connections and crossings for pedestrians and cyclists that also rely upon the corridor. The DDIs will be a first for the City, although there are several within the state.
WSP has worked with KDOT on projects for several decades, and that understanding of local transportation needs is helping to solve the traffic issues affecting this stretch of the Wichita corridor.
“KDOT has commented numerous times how successful the tiger team approach has been to bring everyone into the room together to work solutions together and gain consensus from the design team and project partners,” Borchers said.
Click on the arrows to view images of the K-96 improvement project, traveling from west to east.
Why Use a Diverging Diamond Interchange?
Compared to a conventional diamond interchange, the DDI reduces vehicle-to-vehicle conflict points by 50 percent and helps to eliminate severe crash incidents. DDIs eliminate left-hand turns into oncoming traffic by forcing traffic to flow from the right side of the road to the left side of the road, then back again.
“Because traffic is on the left-hand side between the crossovers, all left turns occur without having to cross opposing traffic,” Borchers said. “Additionally, pedestrian walkways are controlled and located through the median to make them more intuitive, while users cross fewer lanes.”
The project’s smaller footprint also provides environment benefits, decreases right-of-way needs and reduces costs, while also handling traffic better than other alternatives.
The project will also construct a wide multiuse path for improved access to Chisholm Creek Park, which is adjacent to the K-96 freeway. The path will connect the northern park property to the south park property and to the trail system south of K-96.
Furthermore, a digital twin is also being developed for the project, which is a digital rendering of a real-world, physical entity that allows for project members and stakeholders to engage with the digital version of the project during planning, design and construction.
“The digital twin will allow the project team to coordinate different elements of the design virtually, ensuring a more efficient construction process,” said Chris Harman, WSP director of digital delivery and innovation. “The twin will also act as an integral tool for the team to engage with project stakeholders throughout the project’s delivery.”
According to Borchers, this will be a first for a transportation project in the state of Kansas.
Effective Communication Key to Design Development
The WSP team worked to help KDOT and project partners navigate the key challenges to determine if tolling was a feasible alternative for this project. Led by Carlos Campo, the WSP team produced Level 1 feasibility studies and analysis for traffic projections to help the project partners reach consensus.
In addition to the tiger team, a community outreach group was developed at the beginning of the process, consisting of community businesses and property owners, so they could be involved from the start and to educate and identify preliminary challenges and opportunities for improvement.
Property ownerships and right-of-way conversations can be difficult, but best met with transparent conversation and open dialogue. For the right-of-way changes, the project team held one-on-one, in-person meetings with property owners to address their concerns and inform them of the process before design alternatives were made public.
“Our proactive strategy provided transparent, two-way communication and ensured no surprises at the community open house,” Borchers said.
The Federal National Environmental Policy Act also requires KDOT to complete an environmental assessment to document the impacts the project may have on the human and natural environment. To this end, the WSP team will review existing and future land uses along the corridor, identify potential historical and archaeological sites, survey wetland and habitats along the creeks crossing the study area and conduct modeling to determine potential traffic noise impacts.
“Through this process, we will coordinate and document public and agency input on the purpose and need, proposed alternative, methods for determining impacts and mitigation,” Borchers said. “If required, in addition to the public, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Native American tribes, various state agencies and local governments will be engaged in the study process.”
A community outreach group was developed at the beginning of the process, consisting of community businesses and property owners, so they could be involved from the start.
Engaging the Community
From the project launch, community engagement and outreach has been a driving force for the continued success of the corridor’s improvements.
Media coverage and public perception has been positive and robust, including feature interviews with KDOT Communications Manager Tom Hein and Borchers, in addition to coverage of the community open house, project graphics and videos.
This is a result of the “early and often” communication strategy designed to address concerns before they become issues. The strategy and accompanying suite of tools was developed and led by Melissa Uland, WSP senior strategic communications project manager, and executed by Steff Hedenkamp, WSP communications and public involvement team lead.
“Jake has integrated and prioritized public involvement from project launch, providing a foundation for community awareness and engagement, building consensus and developing positive, project momentum,” Uland said.
WSP developed and launched a project brand, website, social media channels and messaging early in the project stages to provide this foundation for outreach efforts.
“A strong brand and communication portal can help communicate your message and goals to the community, providing awareness, engagement and two-way communication channels,” Uland said.
The WSP team also captured drone footage of the corridor during peak conditions in addition to hosting and recording stakeholder interviews. Footage from both efforts were used to produce a video that demonstrates current conditions and communicates project need.
Vision for the Future
Borchers and the team have met the community in their environments, including community events and tabling events at neighborhood locations.
“His leadership, trust and professionalism have allowed our team to execute a strategy to promote, educate and engage communities in a meaningful way,” Uland said. “This project and the teammates I have had the opportunity to work with are why I love working at WSP.”
As a Wichita resident himself, Borchers said his vision for the K-96 highway includes more reliable drive times and an overall safer highway where users will feel less stress, less congestion and a safer route for all users including pedestrians, cyclists, commuters and freight.
“My hope is that the project will provide more benefits for our community and support the growth that is happening along the corridor,” Borchers said. “The opportunity to be a part of a project that will impact so many lives in a positive way inspires me daily and pushes me to deliver this project.
“If we engage with the community in such a way that they felt ownership and felt proud to say that they were part of the K-96 project, that to me is a successful project at the end of the day,” he added.