Wichita to study 21st Street railroad crossing delays

Railroad crossing (KSN File Photo)

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — For all the drivers who get frustrated by the railroad tracks on 21st Street North in Wichita, there is hope for smoother rides and fewer stops ahead.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is giving the City of Wichita a $1 million grant to study ways to improve traffic in the area.

Kansas Congressman Ron Estes said that he and Senators Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in November and outlined the problems along 21st Street.

The street is one of the connectors between east and west Wichita. It is used by people in Wichita’s North End, Nomar, ict21 Industrial District and Wichita State University.

“Currently, the 21st Street Corridor runs between two distinct and culturally rich communities in the city,” Estes wrote.

The problems

But Estes said many Wichitans and business interests choose to avoid the area, and he blamed the train traffic for “posing the most significant physical impediment.”

Eight rail tracks are grouped into four crossings in the one mile of 21st Street between Broadway and I-135. Estes said that according to the Federal Railroad Administration, there are approximately 75 train movements per day, mostly at low speeds at 21st Street.

Drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians must wait five to nine minutes for trains to pass. But the delay could be up to 90 minutes if switching is happening in the rail yards to access spur tracks.

He said the delays are a challenge for people trying to get to jobs, medical care, child care, grocery stores, places of worship, and more.

Estes said the result is limited economic development in the area.

“As it stands, there are 261 vacant parcels – 85 of which are commercial and/or industrial lots between the railroad tracks and I-135,” he wrote to Buttigieg. “Furthermore, the industrial nature of the area brings noise, unsafe environments for pedestrians/bike riders, a lack of transit access, and increased wait times for emergency services.”

“The multiple railroad crossings along 21st Street negatively impact communities in Wichita’s North End, tarnishing residents’ quality of life, stunting economic growth, decreasing safety for pedestrians and forcing travelers to choose alternate routes,” Estes said in a news release.

DOT responds

On Feb. 14, the DOT announced the $1 million grant for Wichita. The City will use the funding to engage stakeholders and support a planning study for the 21st Street Corridor.

Estes said there had been a lot of talk about the 21st Street Corridor for decades — but no action.

“I’m pleased that Wichitans will finally have movement as the Kansas Department of Transportation and Sedgwick County can begin engaging the community, studying the problem and developing a solution that will enhance this important, vibrant part of our city,” he said.

Community response

“This grant will renew the focus on connecting two communities while promoting economic opportunity for our North End residents and its industries,” said Ariel Rodriguez, executive director of Empower. “Our community is optimistic about the future vision of the Nomar District, and this grant validates the area’s importance. We are hopeful about finding practical solutions that will make visiting the Nomar District easier and increase the quality of life for our neighbors and businesses.”

“This grant provides an exciting opportunity for Wichita’s North End and the Nomar District,” said Sedgwick County Commissioner Ryan Baty. “The infrastructure investment will certainly help energize future development.”

Wichita had similar delays at other railroad crossings years ago — from the downtown area to 13th Street. Construction crews raised the tracks above the roads during a five-year, multi-million dollar project that ended in 2009. But the project did not extend to 21st Street.

“The next evolution of our community is on the horizon, and Wichita hopes to begin assessing and addressing the unique challenges of the 21st Street Corridor project,” Estes wrote to Buttigieg.

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