While President Bush was discussing the hostages and other facets of the Mideast crisis with Congress Tuesday night, the Lawrence City Commission was discussing another kind of hostage situation.
On a 3-2 vote, city commissioners decided to try to hold future improvements to the proposed southwest trafficway hostage to the eastern parkway they want to see built. An interlocal agreement tentatively approved by the city would bar both the city and county from adding a third and fourth lane to the southwest trafficway or a major interchange on the trafficway at 15th Street until firm funding commitments are obtained to construct an eastern parkway. The interlocal agreement goes to the Douglas County Commission tonight for its consideration.
Both the southwest trafficway and the eastern parkway are included in what officials envision as a "circumferential loop" of highways to ease the flow of traffic in and around Lawrence. The proposed southwest trafficway would loop south and west around Lawrence and connect the Kansas Turnpike west of Lawrence with Kansas Highway 10 east of the city. A precise route has not been determined for the eastern parkway but it would swing north and west from K-10 highway and provide better access to downtown and major highways north of the city.
Both are good projects, supported by the Journal-World, but planning and financing for the southwest trafficway is far ahead of that for the eastern parkway. Hampering any future progress on the southwest trafficway by making it dependent on obtaining funds for the eastern parkway is akin to blackmail.
City commissioners who favored the interlocal agreement said they see the tie between the two road projects as a way to insure the eastern parkway won't be pushed aside. Tying the two projects together will force local officials who favor an expanded southwest trafficway to also support the eastern parkway.
But what happens if the eastern parkway project founders, despite the city's best efforts and planning? What then happens to the 15th Street interchange on the southwest trafficway, envisioned as a vital access to such places as Lawrence's proposed second high school, the growing Oread Research Park, and Kansas University's new Lied Center for the performing arts, now under construction at 15th and Iowa? It may be careless planning, but the issue of this particular interchange raises the question of why it was not upgraded in the trafficway design in the first place. Major traffic flow can be expected at this location, now designed to be served by an at-grade intersection rather than a major interchange. As the interlocal agreement presently reads, no improvements could be made to accommodate greater traffic unless funding is first committed to the eastern parkway. In effect, the probable future needs of the city, KU and the school district are being used as blackmail by special interests with a limited, selfish focus.
The need to expand the southwest trafficway to a four-lane highway obviously may be further down the road than the need for an upgraded 15th Street interchange, but if the need becomes apparent, the expansion shouldn't be tied to another project, which may or may not be under way at the time, in spite of good-faith efforts.
City and county voters will be asked in November to approve a $4 million county bond issue to complete a $41 million funding package for the southwest trafficway. City voters also will decide a $4 million city bond issue to start planning for the eastern parkway. The city and county were wise to separate these two issues when sending them to the voters. Why, then, shackle themselves to an interlocal agreement that will hold the future of the southwest trafficway hostage to the future of the eastern parkway, especially when the future of both projects remains to be decided by the voters? It's uncertain how the interlocal agreement might affect November's vote, but unsavory political maneuvering may have a negative impact on voters.
County commissioners are scheduled to consider the interlocal agreement tonight. The agreement can't be completed unless the county also endorses the terms. Although they may by criticized by city officials, county commissioners should avoid being trapped in any piece of highway blackmail.
Both the eastern parkway and southwest trafficway are important projects to Lawrence and both the city and county should work toward completing them. The terms of the interlocal agreement should be carefully weighed to encourage public support by demonstrating good planning and common-sense considerations. Creating a probable traffic bottleneck on one project in hopes of promoting the other isn't the right strategy to use.