A federal agency believes more environmental review should be done on the South Lawrence Trafficway.
The Environmental Protection Agency has sided with opponents of the South Lawrence Trafficway, saying that current efforts to finish the highway are premature.
Dennis Grams, the EPA's regional administrator in Kansas City, Kan., said environmental reviews should be completed before the final five miles of the trafficway are built. The EPA maintains that an alignment for the highway shouldn't be chosen until additional information about the road's impact on Haskell Indian Nations University and the environment have been gathered and analyzed.
``The inclusion of this information would be beneficial in making the final decision on the best possible alignment," Grams said.
Grams made his comments in a letter to Art Hamilton, regional head of the Federal Highway Administration.
The correspondence was triggered by Haskell alumni and environmentalists, who threatened to sue if Douglas County proceeded with plans to build the trafficway on the 31st Street alignment. At that location, the road would cross the Haskell campus and a wetlands area used for American Indian religious ceremonies.
Highway administration officials, who also were threatened with litigation, reportedly have told trafficway opponents that they will take a position by Friday. Federal highway officials could not be contacted Monday for comment on the EPA position because their offices were closed for the Presidents Day holiday.
At issue are plans to build five miles of trafficway, from U.S. Highway 59 to Kansas Highway 10. That segment of road would feed into nine miles already completed, from Highway 59 to County Road 438, just north of the new Lecompton exit on the Kansas Turnpike.
Douglas County officials decided in December to forge ahead with the project after federal and state agencies reached an impasse on which of three potential trafficway routes would be best. Critics of the decision said the county was obligated to wait for a supplemental environmental impact statement to be finished before choosing an alignment.
By threatening to sue, trafficway opponents are hoping to force the Federal Highway Administration back into a regulatory role on the project and to prevent the project from going forward. When the county made its move, administration officials said they would abandon oversight of the project if no federal funding were requested on that segment of the road.
Trafficway opponents have questioned whether the FHwA legally can withdraw in the middle of a project that already has received federal funding. Earlier federal involvement also set in motion the review process under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Attorney Bruce Plenk, who is co-counsel for the trafficway opposition, said the EPA's position affirms that the county jumped the gun in picking the 31st Street route before environmental impact studies were completed.
``It shows that EPA has concurred with our legal analysis that the NEPA process can't be abandoned midstream and that all these environmental, cultural and social impacts must be analyzed before an alignment decision can be made,'' Plenk said.
EPA, which has the obligation to review and comment on the project but no authority to stop it, has taken similar positions in the past, said County Engineer Frank Hempen.
For their part, county officials haven't flinched.
``We are proceeding ahead. This hasn't deterred us an inch,'' said John Pasley, the county's trafficway project manager.
After being told of the EPA's position, county commissioners put a trafficway-related item on the agenda for their next meeting, at 6:35 p.m. Wednesday. At that time commissioners are scheduled to consider signing a contract with HNTB Corp., a Kansas City engineering firm, for $709,000 worth of design work on the trafficway.
The contract discussion had been scheduled last week but was postponed until county commissioners could meet in private Monday with their attorney and the Kansas Department of Transportation's general counsel.