The largest federal roadblock to completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway may soon be removed.
Federal highway officials stunned local players in the South Lawrence Trafficway project Friday by saying they are prepared to walk away from the controversy.
That change in position potentially removes one of the key obstacles to finishing the road on the 31st Street alignment.
``If the state or county tells us that there will be no federal funds requested from U.S. Highway 59 eastward, we will no longer be involved in the project,'' said David Geiger, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration's regional office in Topeka.
Geiger said that was the position his agency took Thursday in Washington, D.C., during meetings that also were attended by representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Federal highway officials were reacting to a vote Wednesday by the Douglas County Commission endorsing the 31st Street alignment for the trafficway. FHwA and the EPA had opposed that route, which cuts through the southern end of the Haskell Indian Nations University campus.
An initial response
Geiger indicated that the FHwA was abandoning its previous position of protecting the interests of Native Americans against adverse impacts from a federally funded project. He acknowledged that litigation by opponents of the 31st Street alignment might force the agency back into the project.
``I'm not saying there won't be a challenge in court on that issue ... but that would be our initial response,'' he said.
Previously, the agency said it opposed the 31st Street alignment because of an executive order on environmental justice. The order holds that no minority group can be forced to bear a disproportionate burden for a federally funded project.
Of the $62 million allocated for the western nine miles of the trafficway, federal finding accounted for $10 million. That segment of the project, which stretches from just north of the new Lecompton exit on the Kansas Turnpike to U.S. Highway 59 south of Lawrence, was completed this fall.
Douglas County officials estimate it will cost $31.2 million to build the first two lanes of the remaining five miles of the trafficway, if the 31st Street alignment is used. That portion of the trafficway will connect the western leg to Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence.
What about the SEIS?
Haskell President Bob Martin said Friday that he did not understand how federal highway officials could change ground rules in the middle of the project.
``How can you take a project that's so many miles long and costs so many dollars and spend all your federal funds on one part, and then on the segment that goes through the wetlands and requires federal clearances not involve the federal government?'' Martin asked.
Also Friday, the executive committee of Haskell's Board of Regents held a press conference to reiterate Martin's position that the supplemental environmental impact statement on the project should be completed before an alignment decision is made.
Engineers had nearly finished designing the 31st alignment in 1993 when FHwA officials realized that the road's effects on Haskell had not been considered when the route was chosen. A supplemental study was ordered to compare different alignments in light of Haskell's concerns. That document remains unfinished.
Haskell officials maintain that the trafficway, if aligned along 31st Street, would have an adverse impact on the spiritual, cultural and academic life of the university.
The money question
Douglas County Commissioner Mark Buhler said Friday that he needed more information before he could agree to forgo federal money on the eastern five miles of the project.
``The answer may well be yes,'' Buhler said.
He noted that federal money for demonstration projects, the type of funding used on the western nine miles of the project, has dried up.
County Administrator Craig Weinaug, who met Friday with Kansas Department of Transportation officials, said the state had not anticipated using federal money on the eastern leg of the project.
``They're not planning on asking for any,'' he said.
State transportation officials have said the remaining five miles of the trafficway would be funded by the state's next comprehensive highway program. However, they have acknowledged that such funding can only be provided by the Kansas Legislature and could be years away.
New questions arise
If federal highway officials bow out, it would raise the question of whether the supplemental environmental impact statement would be required. Buhler said the document should be completed regardless.
Questions also would arise about the ongoing role of the EPA, the other federal agency opposing the 31st Street alignment. Early indications are that EPA's role would at the least be scaled back, if the road is built on 31st Street. The EPA is charged with enforcing provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act as it pertains to federal projects.
``We're in it because of the NEPA issue. If Federal Highway withdraws from the project, that removes the NEPA issue,'' said Lynn Kring, director of NEPA in the agency's regional office in Kansas City, Kan.
EPA officials say the environmental justice issue will still be on the table because federal permits are required for construction in the wetlands, regardless of funding. However, the Corps of Engineers issued those permits on the 31st Street alignment during the initial planning stage, which occurred prior to execution of the environmental justice order.