An attorney for the state highway department said Monday that a Colorado consulting firm will study the possibility of building a component or substitute for the South Lawrence Trafficway south of the Wakarusa River.
That news was greeted warmly by the attorney for the Wetlands Protection Organization. The group's disagreement on the issue, combined with disagreement from Haskell Indian Nations University, has thwarted plans for the trafficway on 31st Street.
"I would like to see as much effort expended to south-of-the-river alternatives as has been expended across the wetlands," said WPO attorney Bob Eye. "That I still would like to see."
Eye's clients are opposed to any road-building that might degrade the Baker Wetlands. They have proposed a route south of the river as a possible alternative to the controversial 31st Street route.
Also Monday, County Commissioner Charles Jones made public correspondence from Mike Rees, chief counsel for the Kansas Department of Transportation, to county counselor Wint Winter, Jr. and Ron Manka, the attorney for HINU.
Jones said it was important to make public the documents in order to preserve public confidence in a city/county plan to upgrade 31st Street. That plan would widen portions of the street to four lanes but not create a trafficway.
"Personally, I'm uncomfortable without letting the public know about this," Jones said. "We work for the public and the public has a right to know. I want the public to perceive that the county and city is running an honest game. I think bringing KDOT in would undermine our credibility."
The documents reveal the following:
Last month, Rees informed Winter he was interested in meeting to discuss the possibility of KDOT asking the federal court for permission to begin acquiring rights-of-way for the South Lawrence Trafficway along 31st Street.
If the motion were granted, Rees wrote, KDOT would be able to acquire rights-of-way, but could not do any construction until a future court order authorized it or another development occurred in the area.
Last year, the Federal Highway Administration issued record of a decision that prohibited building the SLT along 31st Street.
So far, there has been no meeting between Winter and Rees, Rees said.
Filing the motion to acquire rights-of-way is still an option, but it is not seriously being considered for now, Rees told the Journal-World.
"One of the problems is I have never been authorized by the Secretary (of Transportation Dean Carlson) to proceed on 31st Street," he said.
Commission Chairman Tom Taul said Rees has the right to pursue trafficway alternatives for KDOT. He said that should not be a deterrent to the city/county project.
Taul said he has scheduled a Dec. 18 meeting with Carlson in Topeka to discuss the 31st Street project. Incoming county commissioner, Bob Johnson, City Commissioner Erv Hodges and Lawrence Mayor Jim Henry also might attend.
Eye said he doubted that his clients would change their minds about building a trafficway through the wetlands and that it would be senseless for KDOT to seek to acquire rights-of-way.
"I think this is a sign of desperation," he said. "KDOT wants to build a highway across the wetlands, and they feel they need to get some court order to do that."
In an Oct. 24 letter to HINU's Manka, Rees said KDOT "has proposed as a matter of discussion that the 31st Street alignment be built and placed in service in conjunction with the design and building of a route south of the river bearing east from U.S. Highway 59."
Rees said the Colorado firm studying the possibility of Haskell student graves in the Baker Wetlands also will study a trafficway route south of the river and connecting with Highway 59.