The date was April 29, 1995.
Gene Ramsey said he lost some good friends and Ottawa lost a good couple when Robert and Janelle Moore were killed that spring day nearly 18 years ago. It was a head-on crash on a rutted and rain-soaked U.S. 59 north of Ottawa that took their lives. Robert Moore, Ottawa’s former public works director, had warned family and friends about the dangers U.S. 59 presented, according to Herald archives.
“I’ve lost some friends on that highway, like the Moores,” Ramsey said as he reflected Wednesday on several fatality crashes that had occurred through the years on a roughly 19-mile stretch of what is now Old U.S. 59 between Ottawa and Lawrence.
Even before the Moore’s fatal wreck, Ramsey said, he already had started talking about the need to improve the safety of the busy highway in his leadership role with the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce and then as new member of the Ottawa City Commission in 1994.
“The highway was narrow and dangerous,” Ramsey said. “Near the Baldwin City junction, the road was so narrow you couldn’t hardly pull off to the side.”
It was in that first year on the city commission that Ramsey said his vision for a safer route from Ottawa to Lawrence drove him to move the discussion from the local arena to Topeka. Ramsey began lobbying legislators to widen U.S. 59 to four lanes, between Lawrence and Ottawa, as part of the Kansas Department of Transportation’s 10-year comprehensive transportation plan.
Ramsey’s dream became a reality Oct. 17, 2012 — 18 years after his lobbying efforts began — when KDOT officially opened the 11.1-mile stretch of U.S. 59 from the Franklin/Douglas county line to south of Lawrence. The $220-million project began in 1998 with planning and design. Construction began in 2007. The nearly eight-mile portion of the road in Franklin County was completed in 2010.
“I was starting to wonder if I was going to live long enough to see it finished,” a smiling Ramsey, 83, said.
The project, from vision to completion, nearly mirrored Ramsey’s consecutive 19-year stint on the city commission. Ramsey, who did not seek re-election in this April electoral contest, will step down from the commission when he wraps his latest four-year term this spring.
During a Jan. 25 Chamber coffee at City Hall, representatives of the City of Ottawa, Franklin County Development Council and the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce presented Ramsey with a plaque — emblazoned with a U.S. 59 sign — which read: “For your vision and leadership on the U.S. Highway 59 project, from conception to completion, 1994-2012.”
“Gene was very instrumental in getting the [U.S.] 59 project put into the comprehensive plan,” Bill Feuerborn, a former Democratic state representative from Garnett, said.
Feuerborn, an advocate for the project and longtime friend of Ramsey’s, represented portions of Franklin County when the lobbying effort started in the mid-1990s. Later, he would represent the southern portion of Ottawa when legislative districts were redrawn in 2000. Feuerborn began serving his first legislative term in 1994, the same year Ramsey joined the city commission.
“I don’t think people realize how many hours of time Gene put into this project,” Feuerborn said. “If I had a dollar for every [U.S. 59] meeting Gene attended, I would be a wealthy man.”
State Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, credited Ramsey with being the first Ottawan to push the highway project.
“Gene was the linchpin for the project,” Finch, also an advocate for the new roadway, said. “He was the first guy in the community who stood up and made that a priority. Since 1994, he has been a constant advocate for the project.”
U.S. 59 was built as a two-lane highway in the 1920s to serve a rural population and to connect the towns of Ottawa and Lawrence, according to The Herald’s archives. Today, more than 10,000 vehicles travel that stretch of road every day, according to state transportation officials.
From 1995 to 1999, U.S. 59 averaged a wreck every 4.9 days, an injury every 9.5 days and a death every 5.4 months, according to a report from the Kansas Department of Transportation. Those figures were 25 percent higher than the number of wrecks on similar roadways throughout the state, the report said.
The numbers didn’t improve with the move into the new century. State officials reported in 2002 that “the highway’s accident rate is 25 percent higher than those on similar highways elsewhere in Kansas.”
“For years, U.S. 59 was considered by many to be one of the most deficient in the state, and this new road will provide a smooth ride and greater peace of mind for commuters and their families,” Mike King, Kansas transportation secretary, said at the U.S. 59 project’s dedication in late September as he stood in the middle of the new highway’s northbound lanes.
At one time, Old U.S. 59, with its narrow lanes, tight curves and rolling hills, was considered one of the most dangerous highways in Kansas, Jerry Younger, Kansas state transportation engineer, said at the dedication, echoing King’s remarks.
The new four-lane, divided freeway is expected to cut the rate of fatal wrecks by 80 percent, as well as decrease the injury-wreck rate by as much as 60 percent, state transportation officials estimate.
“My wife [Kelly] commutes on that highway every day going to Topeka, and it makes me rest a lot easier knowing she is driving on that highway verses the Old 59,” Blake Jorgensen, Ottawa mayor, said Wednesday.
In 1997, KDOT began environmental studies and conceptual designs to evaluate the need for improvements to U.S. 59, which eventually led to a proposal that consisted of an entirely new four-lane expressway from Lawrence to a connection to I-35 northeast of Ottawa.
Ramsey credited Finch with helping push the project through.
“Blaine was very active in pushing for the new highway,” Ramsey said. “He deserves a lot of credit, too.”
Finch served on the Ottawa City Commission from 1997 to 2001. During the same period, Finch said he also was serving an internship for former state Rep. Ralph Tanner, R-Baldwin City.
“The discussions [about the comprehensive transportation plan] were heating up in the late 1990s, and I was fortunate enough to be serving as an intern with Rep. Ralph Tanner,” Finch said. “I was able to keep tabs on the [U.S. 59] proposal, and make sure we were in the right places and talking with the right people. But Gene really was the driving force behind this project.”
Feuerborn agreed with Finch’s assessment of Ramsey’s value to the project.
“The transportation secretary was Dean Carlson at that time, and he told me he was impressed with Gene and how much information he could provide him,” Feuerborn said.
Feuerborn said Deb Miller, transportation secretary under Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, also was an advocate for the U.S. 59 project, as was Sebelius. Feuerborn, who lobbied for the project, said it was not only beneficial for Ottawa and Lawrence, but also Franklin County, Douglas County and the state.
“Franklin County lobbied harder for the project than Douglas County, which always surprised me a little,” Feuerborn recalled.
He credited Ramsey for part of the reason Franklin County took a front seat on the project.
Richard Nienstedt, Ottawa city manager and who has been involved in numerous highway projects in other communities and counties during his career, said he knows from personal experience dealing with these comprehensive transportation plans that it takes a local advocate like Ramsey to bring such projects to the front of a long list of highway improvement proposals across the state.
“I know Gene’s efforts were instrumental in getting this approved,” Nienstedt said. “I worked on projects for highways 81 and 69, and they were successful because someone like Gene was tenacious about pushing the project forward and looked for every opportunity to sell the project.”
Feuerborn and Finch said Ramsey also was concerned about land owners who would see their land and, in some cases, fields now divided by the highway expansion.
“Gene was sensitive to people with land along the route, and he tried to minimize damage for those land owners on route after it was approved,” Finch said.
Ramsey said that was one of the most difficult parts of the project for him.
“I know it divided some people’s property, and I truly did feel very bad about that,” Ramsey said.
But in the end, Ramsey said for him, something had to be done to improve the safety of the route for the thousands of motorists who travel the highway each day.
John Coen, Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer, said he knows about the difficulty of deciding where best to put the highway.
“I lived through that, because a lot of my neighbors were affected by the project, and I understood their concerns,” Coen, rural Ottawa, said. “I think, for the most part, we’re past that now. The highway was a real safety concern.”
With the new U.S. 59 route diverting traffic away from downtown Ottawa, Coen said it will be incumbent upon Ottawa to give motorists on U.S. 59 and I-35 reasons to shop, eat and do business in Ottawa.
“I have heard some [Chamber] members voice concerns about [the highway’s relocation],” Coen said. “It is going to be incumbent upon us [Ottawa] to give people reasons at every opportunity to get off the highway and come into the community. I think the highway provides the opportunity for economic growth.”
Jorgensen and Finch said the expanded highway puts Ottawa at one of the connecting points in the I-70, I-35 and U.S. 59 triangle, making it ideally suited for growth — especially with the addition of the BNSF intermodal facility nearby at Edgerton and Gardner.
“The highway provides a connecting road between I-35 and I-70 points, and studies have shown that points on the end of those connector roads see economic growth,” Finch, former interim director of the Franklin County Development Council, said. “This enhancement makes us look even more attractive to economic growth coming our way.”
Ramsey said while safety was the primary concern, he added the road should promote economic growth in the Ottawa area. Ramsey said the end result has been worth the effort. The five-time Ottawa mayor said he was surprised by the U.S. 59 project award.
“This is definitely one of the highlights of my career,” Ramsey said. “I cannot begin to express how truly grateful I am.”
Finch said Ramsey was “very deserving” of the recognition.
“Gene had to wait 18 years to see his vision become a reality,” Finch said. “I drive that road almost every day, and I’m glad the project is done. I know people appreciate the hard work and dedication Gene put into this project to get it done.”