BAXTER SPRINGS — There’s a reason why the Kansas Department of Transportation has advisory committee meetings, and Thursday night was a prime example.

BAXTER SPRINGS — There’s a reason why the Kansas Department of Transportation has advisory committee meetings, and Thursday night was a prime example.

The meeting was called to identify how to spend roughly $38 million in funds as part of the T-WORKS transportation plan. As announced by Gov. Sam Brownback last summer, the plan was to spend that money on improving U.S. Highway 400/166, which starts at the state line with Missouri near Downstream Casino, and moving northwest as far as the money would go.

Missouri transportation leaders expressed uncertainty about a timetable or funding for improvements to the portion of the road from Interstate 44 to the Kansas state line, particularly in light of a possibility of a Joplin bypass at some point in the future.

“Because of the conversations upper management had with MoDOT, we wanted to revisit that as the section that moves forward,” said Steve Rockers, KDOT road design leader. “T-WORKS has as a project a piece dedicated for funding a project in Cherokee County. We want to have feedback from you as to about where that project lies.”

One member of the advisory committee, Alan Mauk, a traffic consultant for the Quapaw Tribe (who own Downstream Casino), surprised the committee and KDOT by announcing planned improvements near the casino entrance.

Mauk said that in order to provide access near a planned $4 million convenience store, the tribe will pay close to $3 million to do road improvements at Exit 1 off Interstate 44, as well as improving the area up to and including the roundabout.

“We knew they had the plans, just not as soon as what they told us tonight. When they told us that they would let that out for bid in under 120 days, that was news to us,” Rockers said. “That’s why we have these meetings, to make sure we don’t miss something big or little.”

With those improvements on the table, the committee began to coalesce around a plan on what, exactly, to do with the $38 million. That plan is to expand to four lanes the roughly two-mile section from the state line to the intersection with Kansas Highway 26. This section will be built as a freeway, with as short of a transition as possible to an expressway near the state line. The plans also include putting in an interchange at K-26, and using whatever remaining funds to purchase right of way and perform various studies along the next sections of the road.

“This gives credence into finishing the project we started years ago, which is bringing 69 down four-lanes to I-44,” said Jim Dahmen, committee member. “If you’re doing it southward only, it may never get there. If we start at the south end and work our way north, it enhances the political authority to finish this. We can get more done in the next transportation plan.”

While Mauk said that there are currently no plans by the tribe to fund a four-lane road from the roundabout near Downstream Casino to the Kansas state line, he also said that if Kansas did their part, it would be hard to imagine that particular stretch not being improved.

The project in Kansas is not scheduled to be put out for bid until 2017, but Jim AuBuchon, executive director of the U.S. Highway 69 Association, said that moving forward cannot wait.

“The $38 million to be spent on this, that’s a good start,” AuBuchon said. “the fact is, some of the elected officials still need to start thinking about what happens after T-WORKS runs its course. Fairly soon, we have to start talking about what happens after T-WORKS. The only way this project [U.S. 69 from Kansas City to Interstate 44] gets finished is with a continuum of transportation programs investing in this part of the state. Transportation advocates, particularly in other counties, are ecstatic to see that we are punching a hole in I-44. Once the hole is punched, it makes it so much easier to add to it as more funding comes available.”

Andrew Nash can be reached at andrew.nash@morningsun.net or by calling 231-2600 ext. 140.