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Archive for Friday, August 9, 2002

Corps of Engineers study endorses two routes

August 9, 2002

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Finishing the South Lawrence Trafficway through the Baker Wetlands stands the best chance of meeting the city's growing traffic, safety and development needs, a federal study concludes.

But building the four-lane highway south of the Wakarusa River would best protect existing wetlands and preserve cultural and historic resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in a study released Thursday.

Either way, the corps said, the unfinished trafficway that already connects the Kansas Turnpike and U.S. Highway 59 should be extended to Kansas Highway 10 east of town.

And one of the two routes should be chosen by the end of the year, said Robert Smith, the corps' project manager for the trafficway.

"We just don't want this project to drag on for too long," said Smith, whose agency's ruling will determine the road's fate. "We think that sufficient time has passed. We need to move forward and bring this thing to completion. It's in the public interest for us to make a decision."

But a leading trafficway opponent sees neither of the two choices as meeting the area's long-term needs, arguing a highway on either route would wreak irreparable harm on irreplaceable assets.

The document, called a draft environmental impact statement, makes a case for building along either of the two routes, taking into account the presence of natural and community resources. The study is expected to be available for review in public libraries by this afternoon.

The corps intends to formally accept public comments about the study beginning Aug. 16. A public hearing will be scheduled for early September in Lawrence, and written comments will be taken through Sept. 30 before federal officials decide which way to go.

"This project is headed for completion," Smith said. "We want to finish this process."

'Do-or-die time'

Construction cannot begin until the corps selects a route, because the corps has jurisdiction for projects in wetlands. The Kansas Department of Transportation is aiming to start moving dirt for the road by early January, in time to settle an issue that has lingered for more than 15 years  and do so before a new governor takes office.

"It's do-or-die time," said Mike Rees, chief counsel for KDOT. "If this doesn't get done now, it seems to me it will fall back to be a local problem."

The issue has been boiling for years. As envisioned in 1985, the trafficway was to run for nearly 15 miles around the western and southern edges of the city, taking truck traffic off city streets and reducing overall congestion on 23rd Street.

The first nine miles of the trafficway, connecting Interstate 70 northwest of Lawrence to the southern end of Iowa Street, cost about $45 million and opened to traffic in 1996. But the eastern stretch has been mired in regulatory and legal complications.

Environmentalists objected to plans for cutting into the wetlands south of Haskell Indian Nations University; American Indians said the road would damage Haskell's cultural, educational and historical ties to the area; and others questioned the road's need, criticized its cost and protested its contribution to urban sprawl. The last full-scale public hearing on the project drew more than 600 people.

A previous study conducted for the Federal Highway Administration, called a supplemental environmental impact statement, determined that the road should not be completed, and Douglas County officials pronounced the project dead. But that study did not review the 32nd Street and 42nd Street alignments now favored by the latest document.

Ratings drive selection

In the latest document  at more than 1,000 pages, it fills three three-ring binders  the two routes are weighed against each other as relating to six "key screening criteria."

The corps prefers the 32nd Street alignment as it relates to safety, efficiency, environment (land use) and cost, while 42nd Street gets the nod for environment (wetlands) and environment (cultural and historic resources).

The 32nd Street route would be shorter, attract more traffic and fit in better with the city's growth patterns because it would be closer to existing development, according to the study. But the road also would cut through the wetlands and be closer to Haskell, properties eligible for consideration as historic districts.

The 32nd Street route would cost about $105 million, which would include an $8.5 million plan to expand the existing wetlands, relocate 31st Street south of the Haskell campus, build a $1.2 million wetlands education center, relocate Haskell Avenue and Louisiana Street to reduce effects on the site and reroute a water line  now in the wetlands  that serves the city of Baldwin.

"It's fair to say that we do not damage the wetlands in any way," Rees said, "and (that) we, in fact, enhance and improve them for future generations."

The 42nd Street alignment, meanwhile, would avoid disturbing Haskell and most of the wetlands, the study said. But it would be longer, require several bridges  including one nearly a mile long  and possibly encourage development outside the city's urban growth area.

The 42nd Street route would cost $128.5 million, and would not include the wetlands mitigation plan connected with the 32nd Street proposal.

Resolution unclear

Bruce Plenk, an attorney for the Wetlands Preservation Organization, considers both options troublesome.

The wetlands group has been a lead opponent of the trafficway project, saying the highway not only would harm the environmental integrity of the wetlands but also destroy the cultural, historical and educational foundations of Haskell. In the past, the group has successfully made its case in court.

No mitigation plan, Plenk said Thursday, could properly account for the proposed destruction of plant and animal habitats, damage to cultural resources, fracturing of community ties with Haskell and disturbance of historic resources in the wetlands.

And pouring four lanes of pavement through pristine farmland south of the river doesn't make much sense, either, he said. The route recommended would cut through too many sensitive areas.

Plenk doubts officials will be able to settle the issue at all, much less by year's end.

"There's always a chance," he said, thumbing through pages of the study Thursday outside his law office. "There's a chance that the Cubs will win the World Series, too."

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