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Archive for Thursday, August 9, 2001

Urgent message

August 9, 2001

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State transportation officials should listen carefully to the messages being conveyed in a Colorado consultants' report.

The Osprey Group of Boulder, Colo., has compiled what appears to be a balanced and accurate summary of public opinion concerning the proposed South Lawrence Trafficway.

The question now is whether the Kansas Department of Transportation will hear or take to heart the conclusions of the consulting firm it hired to facilitate a public input process for the trafficway.

The Osprey Group concluded that although difficult issues need to be addressed, it will be possible to design such a process. Hopefully, the consultants' evaluation is not overly optimistic. Although the consultants are newcomers to the SLT debate, their report reflects a relatively comprehensive grasp of the issues involved.

Their findings are based on interviews with 30 local people identified as "stakeholders" in the SLT process. They included representatives of Baker University, Haskell Indian Nations University, the city, the county, the chamber of commerce, neighborhood and environmental groups.

Their conclusions reflect the diverse views of these groups but also acknowledge some areas of agreement. A number of those interviewed were eager to reach agreement on an SLT route so the road could be built and the city could move on to other issues. There was a general desire not to bisect the Baker Wetlands, which would mean an alignment that either runs south of the Wakarusa River or just south of the Haskell campus.

Views on Haskell's role in the process varied widely "from pride and empathy to resentment and incomprehension." And Osprey Group representatives perceived that the SLT has become a "symbol" for many local residents. The perception that broader, "fundamental values" are at stake in this issue makes it more difficult to resolve, they said.

What may be the most important part of the Osprey Group report, however, are the messages it is carrying to KDOT on behalf of local residents. It is telling KDOT that members of the public do not trust the information they are receiving. For example, the report notes that some of those interviewed believed that although a 42nd Street alignment now is included on KDOT maps, they "do not believe KDOT is giving it open and serious consideration." The report also acknowledges a lack of trust for KDOT and its chief spokesman on this project, Mike Rees.

Osprey Group also is telling KDOT what others in Lawrence have told it for years, that the public wants as many details as it can get about every SLT route alternative. We don't need more options, we need more in-depth information about the alternatives that already are on the table. Information about costs, access points and other factors are needed for the public to adequately evaluate the proposed routes. Withholding that kind of information only makes the public more suspicious of KDOT's motivations and how sincere it is about seeking and responding to public input on this project.

The issue of its own lack of credibility and public trust should concern KDOT officials well beyond the SLT project. If KDOT gets nothing else out of this report it should take a close look at the fact that local residents don't believe they can trust what they are being told by KDOT representatives. This is a serious issue, and resolving it is an essential element in resolving the SLT debate and any other highway project proposed in this area.

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