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Archive for Sunday, September 1, 2002

32nd Street best for community, Lambert says

September 1, 2002

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— Others may talk about the Baker Wetlands, seek to protect the Baker Wetlands, stake a claim to the Baker Wetlands or profess to know what's best for the Baker Wetlands.

But when it comes to finishing the South Lawrence Trafficway through the Baker Wetlands  a prospect backed by the Kansas Department of Transportation but opposed by a host of environmental groups  the property's owner backs a single plan to settle the dispute.

The highway should be finished along a 32nd Street alignment, through the northern edge of the wetlands, at a cost of about $105 million, says Dan Lambert, Baker president. The project would include $8.5 million to expand and maintain the wetlands, while building educational and recreational offerings in the natural area.

"Of all the opportunities that are realistic, it's the one, in my judgment, that offers what will be in the best interest of the community," Lambert said. "There's a reason why it's called a compromise: No one party is going to achieve all of its objectives, but this is the best solution for the community."

Lambert's comments don't do much to assuage the concerns of longtime trafficway opponents, including Anna Wilson, spokeswoman for the Wetlands Preservation Organization.

"Baker is going to ignore their own students, ignore a lot of their staff, ignore a lot of the community members in Baldwin, and they're also going against a lot of organizations here," said Wilson, noting that her group is backed by the Sierra Club, Jayhawk Audubon Society, Baker Student Senate, KU Environs and others. "What Baker's looking to make on this is $8.5 million."

Divisive debate

Wetlands issues are considered pivotal to the future of the trafficway, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prepares for a Sept. 12 public hearing to weigh concerns about the project's anticipated effects on physical, social and environmental resources in the area.

The trafficway project would build four lanes to connect U.S. Highway 59 at the southern edge of Lawrence with Kansas Highway 10 at Noria Road, southeast of town. The western section of the project opened to traffic in 1996, connecting U.S. 59 with the Kansas Turnpike northwest of Lawrence.

Corps officials intend to choose one of two options for finishing the road:

l The $105 million 32nd Street alignment, backed by KDOT.

l A 42nd Street alignment, running south of the Wakarusa River, at a cost of $128.5 million.

Corps officials control the project's future, because construction cannot begin without a permit to fill wetlands, and those permits are granted only by the federal agency. Corps officials have said they intend to make a decision about where the road should go by the end of the year.

Lambert, for one, plans to attend the Sept. 12 hearing at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds and offer any information that could help drive support for the route through the wetlands.

"I think this may be the last opportunity for the community to resolve this issue and, particularly, do it in a way that is so accommodating to virtually all parties," Lambert said. "It is time in this community  probably for the folks who have not been as vocal in the past  to speak out and let it be known what it is that should happen. That's why we've come out so strongly in favor of this.

"We hope this encourages other people to do the same."

Mitigation proposed

The corps' own draft environmental impact statement narrowed the project's future to the two "preferred" alignments, either of which would serve the community's overall needs.

According to the draft, the 32nd Street plan would perform best in terms of safety, traffic efficiency, land-use issues and cost. The 42nd Street route would be best in terms of sensitivity to cultural and historic resources, and effects on wetlands.

Mike Rees, KDOT chief counsel, said his department would not spend any money to build the trafficway on the 42nd Street alignment. But a decision to go on a 32nd Street route would mean spending as much as $15 million by the end of the year, much of it to get the wetlands mitigation plan in place.

Rees said the trafficway plan simply wouldn't work without the mitigation plan, which calls for expanding the area by 317 acres, building a wetlands education center and relocating roads to keep traffic on the edges of the natural area.

"Clearly, this has been the center of our efforts for a long time," Rees said.

Lambert said the state's mitigation plan would provide the best opportunity for the wetlands to survive. Baker took control of the wetlands in 1968, and has worked since to reverse previous efforts to use the land for farming.

Looking ahead

Roger Boyd, a biology professor who manages the wetlands for Baker, said the trafficway would cut across the northern edge of the wetlands, an area that hadn't functioned as wetlands until restoration efforts started taking hold in the early 1990s.

Boyd and Lambert initially resisted efforts to build the trafficway through the wetlands, but have since changed their minds as the mitigation plan took shape.

The plan would increase public use of the site, help buffer traffic from wildlife and allow for efficient flow of traffic in the community, Lambert said.

"It allows us to be stewards of a valuable asset for the community that under other circumstances simply wouldn't be possible," Lambert said.

Wilson said she couldn't see how stewards of a valuable asset could allow much of it to be destroyed by pouring of tons of concrete and welcoming thousands of noisy, pollution-emitting vehicles.

But she's still hopeful that enough opponents will show up for the Sept. 12 hearing to negate Lambert's push for an extended highway through the wetlands.

"People need to know that regardless of how a particular group feels, they need to show up," she said.

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