Mike Rees, chief counsel for the Kansas Department of Transportation, sees the start of construction for the final leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway beginning before year's end.
Bruce Plenk, an attorney for a group fighting a plan to complete the road through the Baker Wetlands, sees in the coming months a learning process for both Rees and the community that will result in the abandonment of plans to finish the road along a 32nd Street alignment.
"I have never had any doubt that this road would get built," Rees said. "But I even feel better about it now."
Rees said he was pleased with the pace of processing the project's environmental impact statement. The document, often referred to as an EIS, is specifically studying the environmental, historical and cultural effects the road would have on the Baker Wetlands and adjacent Haskell Indian Nations University.
The report must be completed and a route chosen for completion of the eastern third of the road before the necessary federal permits can be issued to allow construction.
The report's release is controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but Rees said he is optimistic a draft could be finished as early as mid-April.
That means a final version of the report could be done by August, Rees said, timing that will allow construction to begin shortly after its release. Rees said KDOT engineers have been doing final design work for the eastern end of the project where it would connect with K-10 near Noria Road since March.
"We'll be in a position to begin letting the contract for construction of that part of the road the day after we get a decision," Rees said. "My timeline may be a little optimistic, but I think we're in pretty good shape."
Plenk disagrees. As part of the EIS process, more than 500 federally recognized Indian tribes have been given the opportunity to offer comments on the project because the Baker Wetlands were once part of the Haskell campus and used for religious and cultural purposes, in addition to serving as a farm for the school.
Plenk said the Indian tribes will convince corps officials that building the trafficway through the wetlands would be devastating to the land, to which they have strong historical and cultural ties.
"I think what will come out of this process is a wonderful education of the people in Lawrence and Kansas and in the corps office of how valuable Haskell is as an institution and of the importance of Haskell's historical and cultural ties to the wetlands," Plenk said.
'What does it mean?'
Obviously, Plenk doesn't envision construction of the road beginning this year.
"Eventually there will be some kind of road, but I don't ever see one anywhere near the Haskell campus," Plenk said.
As part of the EIS, corps officials will study the feasibility of avoiding the wetlands and building the road south of the Wakarusa River. Plenk said that would be preferable to the 32nd Street option, but he's not sure even that is the best solution.
"I think part of the question really has to be what does it mean to complete the trafficway anymore?" Plenk said. "Maybe it doesn't mean connecting to what's built at all."
Instead it might mean connecting Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence with the Kansas Turnpike east of the city by way of a new north-south road somewhere between Lawrence and Eudora. Or maybe it just means moving more people by commuter rail or other alternative forms of transportation.
"But it is real hard for me to see how anyone won't be able to realize that putting a road through the Haskell/Baker Wetlands isn't just tremendously damaging," Plenk said.
Rees said he thinks a tentative $8.5 million deal reached with Baker University to add from 300 to 700 acres of man-made wetlands to the area in exchange for allowing a 32nd Street route to run through the university's property has eased the concerns of many environmentalists.
"I have heard a lot of people since we worked this out with Baker say they feel a lot better about the project," Rees said.
In fact, Rees said the biggest hurdle to the road's completion may not be the permit process which has stalled construction on the remaining third of the road since the late '90s but rather money.
Possible state budget cutbacks have left KDOT officials uncertain of how much money they will have to spend on projects like the trafficway. But Rees said the project has long been a priority of both Gov. Bill Graves and KDOT Secretary Dean Carlson, so if work can begin before their terms end this year, he is optimistic funding for the road will be found.
"I'm still optimistic that it can be funded," Rees said. "Secretary Carlson wouldn't let me spend so much time on this if he didn't think there would be funding for it."