Amy Cunningham
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With an increase in the city’s population and the number of traffic accidents, some residents in Gardner have called for a reevaluation of heavily traveled thoroughfares in town. For some, the December 2010 two-car accident which cost the lives of Hannah Apperson and Milton Whaley highlighted the importance of making U.S. 56 Highway west of Interstate 35 and east of Moonlight Road safer.

Gardner city engineer Celia Duran said the city received a number of inquiries and suggestions for improvements to the highway following the December crash.

“I know when the fatality accident occurred last year we had a number of residents calling to ask about lowering the speed limit (in that area) and we forwarded that information along to KDOT. There were various (safety) recommendations made by the citizens,” Duran recalled.

Based on numbers from the city, Gardner’s population doubled between 2000 and 2010, the number of accidents occurring on that stretch of road increased 250 percent. In 2000, that area saw 18 accidents, none fatal.  In 2005 the number of incidents reached 24, but none of those wrecks resulted in fatalities.  By 2010 there were 45 reported accidents with one accident resulting in two fatalities.

According to Duran, the city’s master plan shows traffic counts on 56 Highway will increase exponentially.

“Based on the transportation master plan, it shows about 19,000 cars per day travel on 56 (Highway) east of Moonlight.  West of Cedar Niles it shows about 26,320 cars. Those are existing numbers based on 2008,” said Duran. “By 2015 we’re estimating east of Moonlight 23,500 cars (per day) and west of Cedar Niles about 33,000.”

Gardner Police Department Information Officer Ilena Spalding said that the department keeps incident records and tries to monitor when a location becomes more accident prone.  She said if the department notices a spike in the number of traffic accidents they notify the city. They also step up patrols in the area.

“We work closely with the city engineer but ultimately (making changes to that road) is left up to the state of Kansas because that is a U.S. Highway,” Spalding explained.  “Main Street is our Main Street, but that is also U.S. 56 Highway, and it is part of the state of Kansas.”

Duran said the city of Gardner has been working closely with the state in regards to the safety concerns related to that part of the highway. That stretch of road is monitored by three entities: the city of Gardner, Johnson County and the state of Kansas.  All three groups conduct a study each year to examine traffic counts in the area.  The city also makes the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) aware of the number of traffic incidents.  She said the city has created a database to monitor accidents, and has been working on the U.S. 56 Highway Corridor Management Plan in conjunction with KDOT.  Findings from the plan did not show any major alarming statistics proving immediate action needs to be taken. However, because of the city’s intimate knowledge of the area, she said that the city did hope to have a discussion  with the state about the speed limit.  They also wanted to look at the intersection of Cedar Niles Road and U.S. 56 Highway where more than 50 percent of the accidents in 2010 occurred.

For their part, in response to the Dec., 2010 accident, KDOT is in the process of completing a traffic study on the one-and-a-half-mile stretch of road on U.S. 56 Highway between the east terminal of I-35 and Aspen Street. According to Kim Qualls, KDOT spokesperson, the study will look at a variety of factors. Some of those include crash history for the area, the geometry of the roadway, what types of crashes have occurred, what the vehicle’s movements (have been), the conditions of the roadway (in relation to wrecks), the speed limit through that area and the actual speed that driver’s drive.

Findings in the report could lead the department to make changes to the area.

“It’s being reviewed because we’ve received more information,” Qualls explained.  “We’re waiting for finalized traffic study that will tell us any recommendations needed on that stretch of roadway.”

In the meantime, the city has made policy changes – for example increasing patrols of the area.

In addition to stepping up patrols, Duran explained that city staff is preparing to propose to the Gardner City Council a plan that would have developers on the hook for increased traffic caused by their developments.

“What we’re trying to propose to council is that when developers come in, we’d like them to pay for a traffic study that would measure the impact of their development and pay for the traffic improvements (that would be needed). We call that Access Management Guidelines.”

From the city’s point of view, the ball rests in KDOT’s court.

“There are federal guidelines that (KDOT) has to follow,” Duran stated.  “We like to work with them, but they have these guidelines to follow. We express our concern, but we have to work with them to come up with a solution.If there is something that is unsafe we would support any recommendation to make it safer for the public.”