MoDOT untangles the Triangle through public cooperation

Judy Meyer
Director, Public Involvement Programs
HNTB Corporation-Texas Operations
Dallas, Texas

While much attention has been given of late to the benefits of public-private partnerships, there remains much to be said for those of a more public-public nature. Some clear examples of the benefits that arise through the cooperation of public agencies can be found in the ongoing redesign and reconstruction of the Grandview Triangle in Kansas City, Missouri. Through an extensive communication program and close coordination with transportation interests, everyone seems to be getting what they want out of this major project.

Known infamously in Kansas City as "the Triangle," this junction of three major roadways-Interstate 435, Interstate 470 and U.S. Highway 71-is one of the most congested interchanges in the state of Missouri. Nearly 250,000 vehicles pass through the Triangle each day, far exceeding its initial design capacity of about 170,000. Along with this heavy traffic load, the interchange holds the unwanted title to the second highest accident rate in the state.

However, through the efforts of the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) and Kansas City-based design firm HNTB Corporation, help is on the way. When reconstruction of the Triangle is complete, its capacity will be doubled. Interstate 435, Interstate 470 and U.S. 71 will have undergone major reconfigurations including new lanes and shoulders for each, and 26 aging bridges will have been replaced. Moreover, through careful planning of the project, this vital interchange will remain fully viable during all stages of construction. All "over-the-highway" work is confined to off-peak traffic hours or nighttime in order to maintain an equal number of lanes as exist today open to traffic throughout the anticipated eight years of construction.

Located in the southern-most reaches of the City of Kansas City and Jackson County, Missouri, the three roadways serve a total of almost one million local residents. Commuters from the nearby communities of Grandview, Lee's Summit, Belton, and Raymore use the three highways every day as a central point of access to all other areas of the city. Motorists across the adjacent Kansas border from the communities of Overland Park, Leawood, Lenexa, Olathe, and Shawnee also use the Triangle regularly for local, commuting, and recreational travel.

When MoDOT embarked on the planning and design journey toward improving the Triangle, officials knew reconstruction of the interchange would require coordination at many different levels of local government. In addressing this challenge, the department initiated numerous programs for including key public stakeholders in the processes leading up to finalization of design and construction.

"We wanted to ensure this project made it to construction because of the need to address the congestion and accident issues in the interchange," said Steve Porter, public affairs specialist with MoDOT. "We knew that would take a high level of cooperation from elected officials, public works staff, residents and businesses from more than one area."

Communication lines
One of the first actions taken by the department was to form a Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) whose membership included city council members, state legislative representatives, and officials from the City of Kansas City, Missouri, and Jackson and Cass Counties. Public works, police, and fire department staff from the City of Kansas City, and public works staff from the City of Grandview were members of the committee, as were a host of local residents from the numerous neighborhoods surrounding the Triangle.

"The Citizens Advisory Committee definitely has raised the level of involvement from the community," said Kansas City, Missouri, Assistant City Engineer Sherri McIntyre.

This committee met regularly throughout the preliminary design phase of the project, and the concerns they voiced regarding various features helped bring about an innovative design that will successfully replace the entire interchange, maintain access to local streets at critical intersections, and keep right-of-way needs to a minimum.

One of the key concerns was maintaining access for local residents at Red Bridge Road in Kansas City, which lies at the heart of the Triangle. After listening carefully to the committee, the design team created a plan combining the access of two city streets, Longview and Red Bridge Roads, via "scissor" and collector/distributor ramps. These ramps will provide effective access to both roads from the mainline of the interchange.

Other MoDOT programs were targeted toward encouraging more detailed discussions with city and county transportation departments, local transit agencies, and emergency response personnel in order to ensure that their needs were addressed early in the project's design.

An Emergency Management Services (EMS) Task Force was created to explore ways to improve emergency response times during construction and beyond. This was prompted in part by a significant problem evolving from the complexity of the Triangle's configuration and its increasingly high accident rates. Distraught motorists involved in accidents were often unable to report their location in the interchange accurately to police, slowing response times and snarling associated traffic as the emergency vehicles sought out the site of the accident. Officials from local fire departments and ambulance services worked together to develop a new emergency signing program that is already helping motorists to better direct emergency services-police, fire, ambulance, and tow truck operators-to incidents quickly, accurately, and with less confusion. The new signs are also benefiting MoDOT's Motorist Assist program serving stranded motorists in the area. In addition, the EMS Task Force provides a mechanism for keeping emergency personnel informed about construction activities so they may alter travel routes accordingly when responding to emergencies.

MoDOT also wanted to keep the public service agencies of the city aware of all state transportation projects in the area and how they would interact. Toward this goal, the department formed Team Millennium Forward, a panel of representatives from city public works departments, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA- the local transit agency), the local Metropolitan Planning Agency (Mid-America Regional Council) and others with a vested interest in improving the city's transportation network.

MoDOT looked for ways to fund Triangle improvements that would minimize its impact on other state projects, particularly those in Lee's Summit and Cass County, where serious concerns were expressed about funding disruptions. Tapping into a newly available bond fund is now helping to pay for the estimated $200 million interchange without impinging on other programmed funds.

Future visions
Coordinating the Triangle with other public projects has been one of the true hallmarks of this public-public partnership. In doing so, the City of Kansas City, Missouri has capitalized on its ability to plan for the future.

"We've met (with MoDOT) and talked about overlapping project needs," Ms. McIntyre explained. "It has created an opportunity to look at our needs, and adjust the timing of some of our projects."

Triangle reconstruction will alter the configurations of some city streets, including Hickman Mills Drive and Longview and Red Bridge Roads. The design has prompted the city to plan associated improvements that can be completed concurrently with the Triangle's reconstruction.

The process of securing right-of-way also is being approached cooperatively, causing less confusion for property owners and streamlining the acquisition process for both the state and the city. Not only does this include obtaining right-of-way for roadways, but also for much-needed bike paths and transit facilities.

"It's not just the public works side," Porter said. "It's the transportation side. Sometimes the best public works project is the concrete you don't pour."

MoDOT is working with the KCATA to develop a transit center on what would have been a vacant parcel of land near the interchange. In addition, coordination with the city will ensure bridges are designed to accommodate the hike-and-bike trails.

Coordinating the planning and funding of transportation enhancements with the progress of the reconstruction is allowing the city to maximize its investments while ensuring continued acceptance from the community.

"We have coordinated enhancements not only with the city, but also with the Parks Department and neighborhood groups," Porter said.

Paving the way
Both Porter and McIntyre say the intensity of communication and coordination applied to the Triangle project is producing cost-effective decisions and allowing seamless project completion.

"Everyone has more understanding about what is going on," McIntyre explained.

This has helped decision-makers reach consensus early and has expedited the approval of plans.

"They already have a base of knowledge and I don't have to sell the merits of each project from the beginning," McIntyre said.

These efforts are paying off for MoDOT in terms of project completion. In May, construction began on the first phase of the Triangle project. Construction has been smooth and preparations for future phases are going well. It appears the goal of completing the reconstruction by 2008 will be met.

"The level of communication and cooperation has been outstanding," Porter noted. "We may have taken the first step to bring all of these people together, but it has been the willingness of all to work toward solutions that has truly made this into the partnership that it is."

There is much to be said for the benefits of true public-public cooperation.

Judy Meyer can be reached at (972) 628-3172 or at jmeyer@hntb.com.