Despite the criticism, Mike Rees, chief counsel for the Kansas Department of Transportation, has spent several years trying to complete the South Lawrence Trafficway.
The idea is to get the troubled bypass, originally envisioned as linking Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence and Interstate 70 northwest of Lawrence, back on track.
Lately, Rees has been seeking support from environmentalists and others for a completed trafficway.
Toward that effort, studies are under way to look for American Indian graves in the Baker Wetlands, to explore a route south of the Wakarusa River and to mitigate damage that would be done to the wetlands. The studies should be completed this spring.
"We've caught a lot of criticism for not looking south of the river, so we are doing that," Rees said.
But many wetlands supporters remain opposed to a road that potentially could destroy a portion of the wetlands south of Lawrence.
"Our position has always been that we don't want an alignment north of the (Wakarusa) river," said Anna Wilson, a spokesperson for Wetlands Preservation Organization, a group of former and current Haskell Indian Nations University students, during a February interview.
A new twist
A new development in the trafficway's saga occurred in late February when Rees announced he was abandoning plans for a route to follow 31st Street. The decision was prompted by the start of a housing development near 31st Street and O'Connell Road, a site in the way of the long-proposed route.
"For months, we've been watching this property," he said. "We can't afford to let them go."
Now, the state agency plans to begin buying land needed to put the trafficway along an undefined route between 31st Street and the Wakarusa River. Rees said he is obtaining appraisals of the land and has contacted the landowners.
"We need to acquire this land to preserve all of our options," he said.
To make the trafficway project more appealing, Rees said the state plans to expand the Baker Wetlands to the west and east of its present location, creating a buffer zone on both sides. The 400-acre area being considered to the west is between Iowa and Louisiana streets and bordered by 31st Street and the Wakarusa River and to the east of Haskell Avenue.
Rees said a trafficway built by the state would mitigate damage done to the Baker Wetlands, and have controlled access and other advantages, such as a new nature research center. The new man-made wetlands would be suitable for ducks and other water habitat.
"If that's what people want, we can re-create it and retain the water there," he said. "You'll have the same environment. It just will be in a different location."
Other environmentalists like Alison Reeber, president of the Jayhawk Audubon Society, says the mitigation package is not really an answer to the problem. She said the state cannot eliminate the traffic and the noise that the trafficway would bring. The society has opposed an alignment north of the Wakarusa River.
"If the south of the river study is so exorbitant that it doesn't make sense, the Jayhawk Audubon Society would come back and revisit the options," she said.
By deserting the 31st Street route, KDOT must work with Baker University, who owns the wetlands from the levee to the river, instead of Haskell Indian Nations University to acquire right of way. The 31st Street alignment originally was killed because it failed to earn the support of Haskell's board of regents.
Baker President Daniel Lambert said the university would evaluate alternative routes other than 31st Street. He said he is concerned about the trafficway's impact on the wetlands, but probably would not contest a 38th Street route with the proper mitigation.
In the meantime
While KDOT works on its plans, Douglas County and Lawrence city officials have hired a Kansas City firm to conduct a feasibility study of improving 31st Street, from Iowa Street to Noria Road, as an arterial road.
The study's first phase will look at short-term improvements and determine if two lanes can be added between Louisiana Street and Haskell Avenue. The study also will examine possible alternate routes east of Haskell and connections to Kansas Highway 10.
"What KDOT is doing is not at all related to what we're doing," said Douglas County Commission Chairman Bob Johnson.
He said the city and county must improve the road and cannot wait for the trafficway to be built. But if the trafficway could be completed along 32nd Street, then he said it probably wouldn't be necessary to improve 31st Street.
"It's probably already been too long waiting and we shouldn't wait to see if that will happen," he said. "I wouldn't want to delay the improvement project on 31st Street in hopes that the trafficway will be built there."
Rees said he understands the direction local officials are taking, but he will continue to fight for the trafficway. He said he has started the process to select an engineering design firm, which will map out alternative routes for the project.
"This is something we need to do, and I believe it can be done," he said.