Archive for Tuesday, October 16, 2001

Trafficway stakeholders

October 16, 2001

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Environmentalists have decried it as a threat to wetlands habitat, taxpayers have bemoaned its cost, motorists have yearned for its traffic-easing promise, and American Indians have worried about its impact on sacred and historic sites.

The latest arguments have been over whether the road should cut through the Baker Wetlands or if it should go south of the Wakarusa River, avoiding the wetlands.

There are a lot of opinions.

Here's a look at what some key members of the conversation have to say and what they think is at stake:

Lawrence-area government

Talk of numbers and the trafficway often go hand-in-hand for city and county officials. Usually, the numbers are traffic projections showing Lawrence-area roads and streets becoming more congested as the community grows.

And they usually show that getting traffic from east to west is the biggest challenge. It always has been a problem in Lawrence, leaders say, because the central position of KU makes it difficult to build east-west roads that serve the heart of the community.

Since its inception, supporters have hoped the trafficway would help.

City Commissioner Jim Henry said finding a way for the road to fill that purpose is still the biggest stake local governments have in the project.

"We have to figure out how to move traffic from east to west and expand our capacity," Henry said.

And he isn't ready to scrap the trafficway because of new numbers showing it won't solve congestion on 23rd Street.

"I think the trafficway is more important than ever, because as we continue to grow, we're going to have to accommodate that growth, and the fact is one of the ways will be with more roads," Henry said.

Other leaders, including some members of the city, county and planning commissions, say a route south of the Wakarusa River would do almost as much to relieve traffic as a 32nd Street route that cuts through the wetlands. The latest traffic projections show that a 32nd Street route would remove only 2,000 more cars per day from 23rd Street than a south-of-the-river option.

County Commissioner Bob Johnson said he understands the argument that a south-of-the river option is better because it takes the wetlands out of the equation. But he doesn't think supporters understand the pitfalls of crossing the river. He said a southern route also would face lawsuits from landowners, be cost-prohibitive in the eyes of the Kansas Department of Transportation and cause growth of the city in the roadway area before that area is ready for it.

"I think what has happened is that after the eastern leg was not completed and there became this growing sense that it won't be completed, it became politically correct to say the road should be built south of the river," Johnson said. "It was people's way of saying the road should be built, but it was just a politically correct statement that wasn't based on the facts of the situation."

Johnson said it isn't true that local government leaders simply don't care about the wetlands, but that supporters of a 32nd Street route think that new man-made wetlands can be created that will more than replace what would be lost.

"I'm a firm believer in our ability to do better today what we have done yesterday," Johnson said. "I clearly believe the wetlands are a resource, but the fact is that the wetlands as we know them today have for the most part been restored as wetlands by Baker University and Dr. Boyd. I believe they can do that again."

The state

As the KDOT's chief counsel, Mike Rees gets paid to look at the big picture.

"I think the trafficway is really a small piece of a larger problem," Rees said. "The larger problem is whether Kansas will be able to compete in the new global economy."

If the state is to prosper in the new business world, creating an efficient corridor between Topeka and Kansas City will be vital.

"To attract the type of companies that can help us prosper, it would be nice if they could drive in and out of Lawrence," Rees said.

But Rees said he hoped a bypass would help with local traffic as well. He said he thinks a South Lawrence Trafficway would do that but said KDOT's traffic models may not be "fine tuned" enough to show just how much the road would help.

"I think livability in southern Lawrence will improve, but 23rd Street will definitely continue to be a busy street," Rees said.

The WPO

Haskell Indian Nations University students and the Wetlands Preservation Organization first and foremost want to protect the wetlands but also would like to create a little understanding.

Patrick Kincaid, president of the WPO, doesn't think enough people understand the value of the wetlands. The benefits the 573-acre area create range from a natural filtering system for ground water to an educational resource that is visited by more than 1,000 students a year.

"There is no other place in Douglas County where you are going to see the number of mammals, birds, reptiles and plants," Kincaid said. "The amount of diversity is direct evidence of how healthy this area is."

Kincaid is convinced that a 32nd Street trafficway along with a relocated 31st Street running through the wetlands would damage the entire area. And he doesn't believe any man-made area wouldn't adequately replace what would be lost.

"I think we would be lucky to see any more than 10 different type of plant species in this new area they are talking about," Kincaid said. "It just wouldn't compare.

"What some people don't understand is that the Baker Wetlands aren't man-made. It may have been farmed, but I don't think man had to put very much effort into bringing it back. The land is just perfect for wetlands."

Kincaid, a Haskell senior majoring in environmental sciences, said much of the debate could be put aside if state and community leaders had a better understanding of American Indian beliefs.

"There needs to be a better understanding of many Native Americans' respect for life," Kincaid said. "To say that a new area is going to be created that can serve as a home for thousands of mammals and birds is one thing, but it doesn't do anything to address the issue that you are killing thousands of birds and mammals that live in these wetlands today. That is important to us."

Haskell University

The school's board of regents rejected a 31st Street route on three different occasions during the 1990s. Last week, the board of regents said it wants 31st Street to be removed from Haskell property, and that they still don't like the idea of the trafficway going through the wetlands.

"Although the wetlands are no longer Haskell property, we continue to advocate for protection of the wetlands' environmental and historic values," the board said in a written statement. "Accordingly the Board of Regents and Haskell's strong preference is for the SLT to be constructed south of the Wakarusa River, leaving the current wetlands intact."

The statement doesn't mention a 32nd Street route. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal agency that oversees Haskell, has said it would consider not opposing a 32nd Street route depending on what mitigation efforts would be included with the route.

Baker University

Baker University President Dan Lambert realizes someone will have to compromise. Baker is willing to be that someone, he said, as long as it can ensure the wetlands will be preserved for the future.

The university is working with state officials on a deal that would allow the trafficway to be built along a 32nd Street route, but the school does not think that is the best option.

"As far as the existing wetlands are concerned, we still are convinced that a 31st Street route for the trafficway would be best for the wetlands, but clearly that is not going to happen," Lambert said.

"From our perspective the wetlands were going to continue to be at risk unless we could find a solution, and we understand that solution may have to involve compromise," he said. "We don't see this as an issue where someone is going to walk away with all the marbles.

"Our primary concern in all of this for the past 15 years has been and continues to be our ability to protect the wetlands as best we can, and to make it the best community resource we can."

The latest deal would give Baker from 200 to 400 acres of property east and west of the current wetlands. That land would be converted, at state expense, into man-made wetlands.

Lambert said he couldn't yet say what the chances are of that deal being struck, but he is convinced everyone is working hard to successfully complete the process.

"I think everyone at the table wants some type of resolution that can put this issue to bed," Lambert said.

-- Staff Writer Chad Lawhorn can be reached at 832-6362.

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