State transportation officials still want to spend $105 million to drive a new highway through the Baker Wetlands.
And they're willing to spend another $2 million to keep it quiet.
"The noise issue is one that's always bothered me," said Mike Rees, who is pushing for the trafficway's completion as chief counsel for the Kansas Department of Transportation. "With noise walls, you don't have any noise."
At the behest of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, trafficway planners are adding two milelong noise walls to plans for finishing the highway between Iowa Street and Kansas Highway 10 near Noria Road.
The concrete barriers would be built alongside the new $105 million highway as it would cut through the wetlands. The walls would be designed to prevent traffic-generated noise and light from leaking out into the natural area or into nearby Haskell Indian Nations University, which together are eligible for listing as a national historic district.
But the engineering assurances won't be enough to snuff out interference from some trafficway opponents, who staunchly maintain that there's no way to cushion the environment from a massive construction project and its resulting rush of traffic.
"If there's going to be a trafficway, why even bother to mitigate?" said Anna Wilson, a Haskell graduate and spokesperson for the Wetlands Preservation Organization, a longtime opponent of the project. "It's going to be so huge, it won't even matter. There won't even be any wetlands left to mitigate."
Such objections haven't put the brakes on plans for the walls.
On Wednesday, the corps ruled the walls would be required as part of the state's plan to build the four-lane highway along a 32nd Street alignment.
The 32nd Street plan is one of two "preferred alternatives" being considered by the corps as it works to decide by year's end which way the road should go. The other: a 42nd Street alignment that would run south of the Wakarusa River, cost $128.5 million and not include noise walls.
Each would be expected to cost $1 million, officials said. The barrier facing Haskell would be 12 feet tall, while the wall facing the wetlands would be 6 feet tall atop a landscaped berm that also would be 6 feet tall.
A noise study commissioned by the state determined that, by the year 2025, the wall-lined trafficway actually would pump less noise into the wetlands or Haskell campus than if no road were built or the 42nd Street alignment was chosen. Traffic and development in the area would likely increase even without the trafficway.
Noise walls elsewhere
"The walls would be painted/tinted to blend in with the background and would be screened with vegetative plantings to obscure their presence from outside the bypass corridor," wrote Col. Donald R. Curtis Jr., the corps' district engineer, in a letter to the state's historic preservation officer.
Scott Russell, director of public involvement programs for HNTB, a consultant hired by the state to work on the trafficway project, said noise walls were becoming increasingly popular among engineers as they design roads in sensitive areas.
HNTB recently devised plans for noise walls along the Papago Freeway in Phoenix, where objections from American Indians and Hispanics led to inclusion of sculptures and other decorative elements to help smooth the transition, Russell said.
"It's viewed in our industry as a pretty low-cost item with a fairly high return in response to some of the controversies," Russell said.
Bob Johnson, a Douglas County commissioner and supporter of the wetlands route, said the "expensive" walls would pay off if the investment helped clear the highway for construction.
Such barriers already muffle sound near other residential areas, Johnson said. It sounds to him like protecting a natural area could be the next logical step.
"KDOT needs : to come up with a way that they can build a barrier that is not obtrusive from a sight standpoint, but is effective from the standpoint of eliminating, or reducing, the noise level," Johnson said.
Sounds of opposition
Wilson said her organization, organized by Haskell students, long had opposed any plans for noise walls. Such barriers would cut into the visual, spiritual and historic fabric of the wetlands, and likely keep students from enjoying the land that once had been a part of the Haskell Institute campus.
Besides, she said, adding more concrete to a project already regarded as overwhelming the landscape shouldn't make it easier to get through.
"They're giving false hope to the city and the people in the community who think that this road is going to be built," Wilson said. "But it's not going to happen."
Wilson, Rees and others are waiting for the corps to decide which way the road should go. After that, both sides expect the issue to head to court, likely to seek an injunction that would force any plans for construction to cease.
But there should be little argument about the noise issue, said Bob Smith, the corps' trafficway project manager. Using detailed models, traffic projections and other data, the corps has decided that - in the long term - the 32nd Street alignment would cause less noise than building along 42nd Street or not finishing the highway at all.
"We will probably not change the position of some parties, but other individuals who are willing to look at the information - the scientific information that has been developed - would reach the same conclusion," Smith said. "The facts will have to speak for themselves."