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Archive for Sunday, September 28, 1997

TRAFFICWAY COULD HALT PROJECTS NATIONWIDE

September 28, 1997

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A judge's ruling in the South Lawrence Trafficway case could be applied to more than 600 projects across the nation.

If a judge's ruling in the South Lawrence Trafficway case is left standing, about 600 similar projects across the nation may be left high and dry.

The ruling may also cause federal officials to rethink how the government gives out road construction money.

"The rules have been changed in midstream," said Mike Rees, chief counsel in the trafficway appeal.

In July, a federal judge ruled that a supplemental environmental impact statement for the trafficway would have to be conducted.

"In the past, everybody assumed if you had a project and you wanted to break it into two parts, you could fund half with federal money and half with state money," Rees said. "This ruling has an effect on how the highways can use that money."

To protect its policies, the Federal Highway Administration (FHwA) recently filed to join the county and state's appeal of the judge's decision.

"The issue we are concerned with is the decision the judge made on how our agency administers project funds," said David Geiger, FHwA division administrator in Topeka. "His ruling conflicts with our guidelines. If this point is not challenged, other states might be held to what happens in Kansas."

In addition to the trafficway, the administration has partially funded the Avenue of the Saints from St. Louis to St. Paul, Minn., the Heartland Express from Denver to Rapid City, S.D., and a 106-mile lane addition project from Columbia, Mo., into Iowa. About 600 such projects all across the nation could be affected by a change in how federal highway money can be used, FHwA officials said.

On sections of roads built with federal money, a federal environmental impact statement has to be written. If only state or local money is used, the builders need only comply with applicable local, state and federal laws.

In the case of the trafficway, federal funds were allotted and used on the western leg of the highway, which is intended to skirt the south and west sides of Lawrence, connecting the Kansas Turnpike west of the city with Kansas Highway 10 east of the city

State funds were later appropriated for the eastern leg, which county officials planned align with 31st Street through the Baker Wetlands. The use of state funds meant a federal EIS supplement being prepared for the eastern section did not have to be finished, officials contended.

When work on the supplement stopped, several environmental groups and others filed a lawsuit to halt trafficway construction.

Many projects are broken up based on when money will be available, their size and who is contracted to build them, said Kansas Transportation Secretary Dean Carlson.

How projects are segmented is controlled and reviewed by the FHwA, so builders can't slip by environmental regulations.

Rees said he felt confident in the state's ability to win the appeal.

"I think (the judge's ruling) was a decision that reached a lot farther than that court could reach," he said. "I think we'll prevail in the 10th Circuit (Court of Appeals)."

In July, U.S. District Judge Tom Van Bebber placed the project under a permanent injunction until the supplemental EIS could be finished. The ruling was appealed to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals by the state and county. The Federal Highway Administration joined that appeal last week.

Lawyers have indicated a decision on the appeal could be made as soon as next spring or as late as 1999.

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