Baker University has come to the table with new alternatives for the South Lawrence Trafficway.
Baker University will pay a heavy price for being a hero in the epic drama of the South Lawrence Trafficway.
Dan Lambert, Baker's president, announced Friday that the university was taking steps to appease Haskell Indian Nations University's opposition to a 31st Street alignment for the trafficway and to protect the 573-acre Baker Wetlands for posterity.
Baker considers the 31st Street route the least destructive to its wetlands area, immediately south of 31st Street. If Haskell rejects the compromise, which includes an offer of land, Baker said it wouldn't oppose a trafficway route through the southern end of the wetlands, along the Wakarusa River.
What Baker has done, public officials and community leaders say, is to bring new information into a debate that deteriorated some time ago into a stalemate.
``If the intention by Baker was to make the process move quicker, they certainly have done their part,'' said Douglas County Commissioner Mark Buhler.
After 10 years of planning and public haggling, the trafficway process had stalled awaiting a decision on the route of the road's eastern segment.
Construction began in August for a nine-mile stretch of the trafficway, which will loop from the Kansas Turnpike west and south of Lawrence to U.S. Highway 59. However, how the trafficway would complete its trek to Kansas Highway 10 was another matter.
A supplemental environmental impact statement was ordered after Haskell protested that a 31st Street alignment would jeopardize the school's educational and spiritual programs at the south end of its campus. The SEIS, which will be completed next year, will evaluate the impact of the 31st Street route against other possible alignments.
Lambert said Friday that Baker was spurred into action by the growing perception that the decision-making process about the route of the trafficway's final five miles wasn't going to wait for the SEIS. Lambert cited recent remarks by Douglas County Commissioner Jim Chappell, who said he believes a route along 35th Street would be most expedient.
The defensive posture
That's where Baker has drawn a line in the sand. Lambert said a 35th Street route would bisect the wetlands and so upset the environmental balance that ``the Baker Wetlands as an invaluable natural resource would be lost to future generations.''
``Essentially what's happened here is that Jim Chappell has backed us into a corner,'' said Roger Boyd, a Baker biologist who manages the wetlands.
Chappell downplays both the criticism and any role he might have had as a catalyst.
``I'm pleased that for whatever reason Baker's come forward and presented the alternative,'' he said.
John Pasley, the county's project manager for the trafficway, said Baker's strategy may succeed because it draws attention to the 38th Street alignment as another alternative.
``We still support the 31st Street alignment but we were going to study the 38th Street route anyway. We will now give that greater emphasis,'' he said.
Although the 35th Street route won't be entirely discounted, ``it puts it in a pretty low priority,'' Pasley said.
No small sacrifice
Protecting the wetlands and discouraging talk of the 35th Street alignment will exact a heavy toll from Baker. Lambert, who said Baker had offered Haskell an undetermined amount of land in exchange for its approval of the 31st Street route, also would concede about 40 acres of land if the 38th Street alignment were used.
Additionally, Baker is creating a public trust to which it will deed the wetlands. By giving ownership of the property to the people of Douglas County, Baker hopes to create a broad base of advocacy for the wetlands.
Lambert acknowledged Friday that giving up control of the wetlands was a drastic measure. ``That gives us pause,'' he said.
However, deeding the wetlands to a public trust also douses speculation that Baker was holding out for a price and that the 35th Street alignment eventually would be bought for seven-figure compensation.
Although Lambert made clear Friday that mitigation would be expected if the 38th Street route is used, Baker won't benefit.
``Any funds which would result from the trafficway mitigation would flow to the trust -- to the people of Douglas County -- not to Baker,'' Lambert said. ``The university would, however, continue the current level of funding for the operation and maintenance of the wetlands.''