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Archive for Wednesday, June 19, 1996

COUNTY OFFICIALS CALL SLT SUMMIT

June 19, 1996

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The South Lawrence Trafficway is a dilemma for the agencies in charge of it.

Douglas County officials have requested a summit next week with other key planners of the South Lawrence Trafficway in hopes of jump-starting the stalled eastern segment of the project.

Some of the largest roadblocks in the county's path are state and federal agencies, who question the environmental and economic feasibility of building the final five miles of the trafficway. That portion of the project, which would stretch from U.S. Highway 59 to Kansas Highway 10, has been on hiatus for more than two years while alternatives to a route along 31st Street have been studied.

Douglas County Engineer Frank Hempen said he asked to meet Tuesday with top officials at the Kansas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration's Kansas division to see if the route issue could be resolved.

``Everybody's got a different idea on the alignment, and we want to see if we can reach some consensus,'' Hempen said.

Although the Douglas County Commission must decide which route the county supports, Hempen said he believes the county will lobby for the 38th Street alignment, which is the southernmost of the three contemplated routes. All would cross the Haskell-Baker Wetlands, but some experts say the 38th Street route would destroy the fewest acres of wetlands.

``I think we're going to have to take a stand locally and go for it,'' Hempen said.

Wetlands in mind

Both Baker and Haskell Indian Nations universities have said they would not oppose the 38th Street route if the highway were built on piers. Such a design would reduce the road's impact on wildlife and water flow in the wetlands.

The 38th Street alignment also would take traffic farther south than 31st Street, the route originally proposed. That alignment decision was reopened when Haskell complained that the construction and increased traffic across the southern end of its property would interfere with the American Indian community's use of spiritual sites on campus.

Also at issue for Douglas County is an anticipated surplus of as much as $11 million from construction of the western nine miles of the trafficway, currently under way. The appropriation of that money to Douglas County expires July 1, 1997, and the funds revert to KDOT for reassignment to other projects.

Douglas County will be able to use that leftover funding for the eastern part of the trafficway if a route is selected before the deadline.

Expensive option

Last month, County Administrator Craig Weinaug was rebuffed in an attempt to persuade KDOT to commit that $11 million surplus to the eastern leg of the trafficway while the route selection continued.

In a letter to Weinaug, Mike Lackey, KDOT's assistant secretary, suggested the county use its leftover funding to build an interchange at 15th Street on the western segment of the project.

Lackey said KDOT was not ready to approve expenditures for design and right-of-way acquisition on the eastern phase and cited problems with all three alignments. He and Transportation Secretary E. Dean Carlson are expected to represent KDOT at next week's meeting.

``We know that the EPA finds 31st and 35th streets `unacceptable' and has `strong environmental reservations' about 38th Street,'' Lackey said.

KDOT is concerned that 38th Street is too far south to provide meaningful traffic relief on 23rd Street, Lackey said, and that the highway would have to be built as a bridge over the wetlands.

``If 38th Street were selected, it would have to be mostly on structure and very expensive," Lackey wrote. "I also believe it would bring in more protests from additional wetland groups.''

David Geiger, division administrator for the federal highway office in Topeka, said that even if Tuesday's meeting produces consensus among the three parties at the table, it wouldn't be the last word on the project.

``If there's any agreement on which alignment to pursue by KDOT, Federal Highway and the county, that decision would be taken to the resource agencies,'' such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Geiger said.

``Their concerns have to be satisfied,'' he said.

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