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Archive for Sunday, August 5, 2001

SUN Traffic woes a key Lawrence issue

August 5, 2001

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"Traffic in Lawrence stinks," Lawrence Sloan said Tuesday as he filled his car with gasoline at a service station along 23rd Street.

Sloan isn't alone. Other drivers who spend time along the city's major thoroughfares echoed his sentiment.

"It is quite a pain," Matt Midyett said at the same service station. "I don't know what can be done about it. It's just a growing thing in Lawrence."

The numbers bear him out. Traffic estimates within city limits are hard to come by, but the Kansas Department of Transportation has been counting the number of vehicles that move along the highways in and around Lawrence -- Interstate 70, Kansas Highway 10 east of town, U.S. Highway 59 south of town and U.S. Highway 40 west of town -- since 1969.

That year, according to KDOT traffic studies, those highways carried an average of 33,150 vehicles a day through Lawrence. By 1990, that number increased to 53,065 vehicles a day, and to 75,155 by 2001. Another 8,620 vehicles a day are traveling on the newly built South Lawrence Trafficway.

Today, the city has 271.6 miles of public streets. That's more than double the 127.2 miles recorded in 1966.

Irritated, informed

The city's drivers aren't just irritated. They're also well-informed, reflecting a city that some say has an above-average interest in traffic issues.

"One thing that stands out about Lawrence is it's a traffic-talking town," said Bill Ahrens, a traffic consultant for the city. "I think that's encouraging. Other towns find it hard to get people involved in the traffic-planning process."

Marty Matthews, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Transportation, isn't so sure Lawrence residents take a greater interest in traffic.

"I think you may get that perception in Lawrence because there are so many traffic issues," he said.

Still, Matthews conceded, Lawrence is different.

"Most places we go, the issue is where the highway needs to go," he said. In Lawrence, "we need to make the case that a highway is a good thing. It's unusual in our experience."

The issues include how to complete the South Lawrence Trafficway, how to expand U.S. Highway 59 and how to ease congestion on 23rd and 31st streets.

It's 23rd Street, though, that casts the longest shadow of any of those issues. It plays into discussions about the SLT, but the street is mentioned by city officials nearly every time changes are being considered for any other major road in town. "We don't want another 23rd," is a common refrain.

Curb cuts

"23rd Street is a good example of poorly planned streets," Mayor Mike Rundle said.

Sloan can tell you why.

"You can't get down 23rd any time of day," he said. "It takes me a half-hour to get from the east side of town to the west side of town. When I moved here 22 years ago, it took 10 minutes."

The problem, planners say, is that there are simply too many places for vehicles to enter traffic. The street was once a residential area, and every house had its own driveway. That's OK for a neighborhood, the experts say, but it became a problem when businesses began to occupy the area and kept all the "curb cuts."

Now city officials are looking at ways to phase out many of the entrances, but they say it could be decades before any policy has a significant effect.

Sloan is familiar with the access point theory, but he doesn't buy it. He points instead to the city's growth; the population, now at 80,098, is more than double what it was in 1960.

"There's a lot more people here now," he said. "And you're cramming thousands of cars into the city."

Complete the SLT

Mark Rummund, gassing up his van at 31st and Iowa, agreed.

"Just tell then to quit building," he said. "That'll solve all the problems. It doesn't matter what you do with the roads. It won't get any better until they stop bringing so many people into town."

Most of the drivers contacted by the Journal-World disagreed. In fact, drivers along 23rd and 31st were near unanimous in their support of one solution to traffic woes: Complete the SLT. That's in contrast to how the issue has divided most of the community.

A route for the trafficway has been sought since 1985, when county commissioners announced plans for the road. City and state officials see it as key to alleviating traffic in southern Lawrence, but completion has been delayed in large part over concerns about its environmental effect.

"There's been a problem here for years, and it's silly something hasn't been done," Steve Korth, a rural Lawrence resident, said at the 31st and Iowa service station.

"The bypass just needs to be finished without giving up 31st Street, because it's a necessary artery, and without going so far south it doesn't make sense for people to use the road."

Sloan agreed, but said accommodations must be made.

"If I were in control of Lawrence traffic," he said. "I would figure out a way to make the trafficway work in a way that makes everybody happy."

But many of the drivers seemed to accept traffic congestion as Lawrence's long-term fate.

"It sucks," Midyett said. "But I deal with it."

-- Staff writer Joel Mathis can be reached at 832-7126.

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