On June 1, Gov. Sam Brownback made a comment then that seemed to be typical "politician swept up in the moment," but may have been more of a sign of a change in plans.

On June 1, Gov. Sam Brownback made a comment then that seemed to be typical "politician swept up in the moment," but may have been more of a sign of a change in plans.

After announcing that the Kansas Department of Transportation would fund the four-lane expansion of the Fort Scott to Arma portion of U.S. Highway 69 as part of the 10-year T-WORKS transportation program, Brownback said that he thought the state could connect U.S. 69 four-lane "all the way to Pittsburg."

Once the Fort Scott to Arma portion is completed within the next 10 years, that would leave just a six-mile gap of two-lane highway between Kansas City and Pittsburg, roughly around the city of Arma (680th Street to the intersection with K-47). This week, it was announced that KDOT would begin a study of that six-mile gap to determine which, if any, "practical improvements" could be done to turn that gap into a four-lane road.

Furthermore, KDOT fast-tracked the study, which is scheduled to be completed in the fall. For the purposes of clarity, let's call this the Arma Connection.

It's an interesting move, because KDOT's future vision for U.S. 69 includes a bypass (called the Crawford County Corridor, or CCC) from north of Arma to the Cherokee County line, to the west of Pittsburg, Frontenac and Arma. In fact, the first phase of that project, down to a line even with U.S. 160, is 3-5 years ahead in engineering compared to the Fort Scott to Arma section.

A KDOT representative called the Arma Connection an "interim project" that won't change plans for the Crawford County Corridor. It should be said that neither project is currently funded. But if the first phase of the CCC is going to be ready to go by the time a theoretical next transportation program comes around in 2021, then why consider makng the Arma Connection in the interim, which wouldn't be built, even with funding, until at least 2017-2018?

If built, the Arma Connection would appear to buy KDOT some time. The CCC would cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars, while the Arma Connection has been crudely estimated at $15-20 million. If the Arma Connection were built now (relatively speaking), it would complete a four-lane U.S. 69 "all the way to Pittsburg."

That would mean the oft-cited Pittsburg State argument that they are the only Kansas regents institution without a four-lane highway leading to it? Solved. The argument that businesses wishing to come to Pittsburg are looking for a four-lane highway? Taken care of.

It would be a positive for KDOT, giving them perhaps a generation or so to figure out how to fund the CCC.

It would also likely be a trade-off, of sorts, of a decade or so of long-range progress for a short-term success. The Arma Connection is the difference between "could" and "can."

There could realistically be a four-lane highway from Kansas City to Interstate 44 along U.S. 69 in 40, 50, 60 years or more. But, with some smart planning and a little extra funding, there can be a four-lane U.S. 69 between Kansas City and Pittsburg, at the cost of adding more time to the long-range vision.

The reality is, two generations from now, the work will likely still be continuing to complete U.S. 69 four lanes to Interstate 44, no matter what happens. But by making the Arma Connection, maybe two generations from now, there will have been a four-lane highway to Pittsburg for 30 years.

There are still two "ifs" to the Arma Connection, though. The study will determine if it is even possible. KDOT's top officials will also have to decide if they can fund it.

But the Arma Connection is an interesting option, and a potentially clever short-term solution to at least some of the area's transportation needs.
By Andrew Nash, for the Morning Sun