With the South Lawrence Trafficway getting more bogged down in federal bureaucracy, it's time for the state to start working with Lawrence and Douglas County to improve 31st Street, a state transportation official says.
Kansas Department of Transportation Chief Counsel Mike Rees said Wednesday he was ready to recommend to KDOT Secretary Dean Carlson that the agency begin studying how it could partner with the city and the county to improve and expand 31st Street in case the SLT project suffers long delays in the federal approval process.
Rees said he would make the recommendation after unofficial word Wednesday from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that it would give more than 500 Native American tribes the opportunity to be consulted on the proposed route for completion of the SLT, which could run through the Baker Wetlands on property considered sacred and historic by Haskell Indian Nations University and others. The corps said it believed the tribes should be consulted because they have sent students to Haskell and thus have an interest in the property's future.
Rees said the consultation process could take many months and push the start date of the trafficway beyond late summer of 2002, which may be as long as KDOT can guarantee funding for the project.
"If this is their final decision, it doesn't bode well for the project," Rees said.
Attempts to reach an official with the corps for comment were unsuccessful.
City and county officials have discussed widening 31st Street to four lanes and expanding it eastward to help move cross-town traffic. The two governments have hired a consultant to study the project, and a report was expected to be complete early next year.
Rees said state law would allow KDOT to provide some funding for the 31st Street project if it were used to carry state traffic. If the improvements were made without any federal funds, the consultation issue could be avoided because the project would not be required to complete an environmental impact statement.
Rees said he would expect a 31st Street project to be challenged in court on the grounds that the improvements are nothing more than a de facto trafficway, which would require an impact statement to be completed.
"I'm sure the claims would be that we are just building the trafficway, but it would be a completely different road," Rees said, noting the improvements would not connect with the completed western portion of the trafficway.
Rees said he would present his recommendations to Carlson in the next few days and Carlson could make a decision on whether to examine the 31st Street option by the end of December.
KDOT is expected to ask the Corps of Engineers to continue with the environmental impact statement, including the consultation process, even though it may take longer than KDOT can afford to wait.
"We have already spent the money and done the work, so we might as well keep the IS alive," Rees said. "Who knows, it might go quicker than I think."
If completed, the trafficway would connect Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence with Interstate Highway 70 northwest of Lawrence. The western 9 miles of the road are finished and open, but the eastern third remains only in the planning stage.