With the South Lawrence Trafficway presumed dead, Douglas County officials thought they had a plan with the city to improve 31st Street.
But the chief attorney for the Kansas Department of Transportation said Thursday that he still is working to complete the eastern leg of the trafficway somewhere. Though the state hasn't made a commitment to any set alignment, he said he hasn't ruled out 31st Street.
"I am just trying to find some place to put the trafficway," attorney Mike Rees said. "I don't care if it's 38th, 31st Street or some other street we haven't thought of yet."
But county officials said they don't want the state to interfere with their plans. Commissioner Charles Jones said he wanted the currently proposed project, improving 31st Street between Iowa Street and Noria Road, to involve only the county and the city of Lawrence.
Commission Chairman Tom Taul said the county may need to revisit Secretary of Transportation Dean Carlson, just as Taul and Lawrence Mayor Jim Henry did during the summer.
"We want to convey we don't want (Carlson) messing up what we can and cannot do," Taul said.
City Commissioner Erv Hodges said he sees areas where the city and county might have similar interests with KDOT. For example, he said, the city could receive state money, if Carlson designated the completed 31st Street as a connecting link.
"We cannot divorce ourselves from KDOT, and I think there is a need to remain in contact when we do have a mutual interest and we can do it," Hodges said.
Rees said 31st Street would be a more logical connecting link than 23rd Street.
He said it's also possible that KDOT could buy the right of way along the 31st Street extension from Haskell Avenue to Noria Road while land costs less, and then work out a deal with the city.
"In my mind, why rule things out?" he said.
In a related matter, Rees recently asked the Federal Highway Administration to respond to the question of how KDOT could reverse its "no build" to a build on any alternative. Last year, the agency decided not to endorse the 31st Street route, favored by the state and county, because it was not supported by Haskell Indian Nations University.
Bob Eye, attorney for the Wetlands Preservation Organization, which includes Haskell students and alumni, said he was puzzled but not surprised by KDOT's recent actions. However, he said the Federal Highway Administration's record of decision clearly stated that building the trafficway along the wetlands wasn't a viable alternative.
"Here is an attempt by advocates, who want to build the SLT across the wetlands, to confuse the issue," Eye said. "To attempt to revive the SLT is to call into meaning the record of decision. To me, it is very clear of what the decision means."
KDOT also has hired Robert Pirtle, a retired attorney thought to hold sway with American Indians, to try to work out a solution to the trafficway impasse, which Rees called a "long shot." He said Pirtle represented the Potawatomi tribe when the new U.S. Highway 75 was being built north of Topeka. Pirtle, Reese said, will be talking with tribal leaders across the United States.
"Before this is allowed to go full course, perhaps the Native American leaders with an interest in Haskell might consider what they want to happen," Rees said.
Eye said Haskell's Board of Regents has remained opposed to a trafficway that would follow 31st Street and doubted the members would change their minds.