A group of 14 community stakeholders learned it is nearly evenly divided on a route for completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway and the road's key environmental report is likely to be delayed several months.
Community stakeholders at a Wednesday meeting convened by a consulting firm hired by state transportation officials did not make an official recommendation for a route. But nearly all members spelled out a position on the route issue.
Eight members of the group expressed support for a 32nd Street route, five supported a south-of-the-river option or no-build option, while the representative from Kansas University said the school wished to remain neutral.
If completed, the trafficway would connect Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence with Interstate 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.
But the group also learned during the meeting that a top official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not believe the project's draft environmental impact statement will be completed by the end of the year as once thought.
Larry Cavin, chief of the corps' Regulatory Program, said he thought a draft EIS would not be complete until spring of 2002. He said his agency is still considering how it must consult with American Indian tribes across the country that have an interest in Haskell Indian Nations University, Baker wetlands and the trafficway project.
"I wouldn't say it is absolutely impossible that it may be completed by the end of the year, but my experience has been that these processes don't move as fast as you would like," Cavin said.
The timing of the report is critical because Kansas Department of Transportation leaders say the project is on a tight time schedule. A final EIS needs to be approved before any work can begin on completion of the bypass. Once a draft EIS is approved, it is expected to take two to six months for a final EIS to win approval from the corps.
Too long to wait
Kansas Department of Transportation Chief Counsel Mike Rees said two to six months may be too long.
"If we don't get final approval of this plan by June, I don't think we're going to ever get it done," Rees said. "I think somewhere around June is a drop-dead date."
Rees said he thought June was pivotal because it would mark the final six months of Gov. Bill Graves' administration, and the state's budget situation may cause pressure for KDOT to use the trafficway money for other purposes if the project has not advanced.
Rees said he still is talking to the corps in an attempt to convince it that the draft EIS can be completed before the end of this year. He said he hopes to have a better feel for the situation in the next two weeks.
Comments from stakeholders on the project emphasized many of the same themes heard in previous debates. But an official with Haskell said that a plan to build the trafficway on a 32nd Street route and then relocate a portion of 31st Street a few hundred feet south of the Haskell campus doesn't address many of the school's concerns about noise, pollution and encroachment on spiritual and historical sites.
"We don't think it should come as a surprise that moving a two-lane road off our property but replacing it with maybe six to 10 lanes of traffic just a few hundred feet to the south isn't much of a mitigation in our eyes," said Marvin Buzzard, vice president for university services.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal agency that oversees Haskell, has expressed some interest in examining a 32nd Street plan, but Buzzard said he didn't think the agency's support for the route was a done deal.
"We are confident they are going to take our concerns into consideration, but we can't commit them to anything," Buzzard said.
Some other stakeholders said they were pessimistic that any proposed mitigation efforts, which include creating 200 to 400 acres of man-made wetlands in the area, will ever be able to re-create the biodiversity that exists in the area that a 32nd Street route would occupy.
Supporters of a 32nd Street route, though, said a south-of-the-river option also would cause environmental harm and would be costly.
"The environmental implications were major on either route, but they were better addressed on 32nd Street because that is the only route that would add 200 or more acres of wetlands," Lawrence City Commissioner Marty Kennedy said. "And if a south-of-the-river route expands our urban growth boundary that far, we will see our taxes go up a lot to build all the local roads that we will need to get to the trafficway. And KDOT certainly isn't going to help pay for those."