An American Indian chanted and lit incense. Protesters waved their signs and plead their case. And the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce president was the target of a cake-thrower.
But when Thursday's public hearing about the future of the South Lawrence Trafficway was finished, the final decision still rested in the hands of a federal engineer.
Differences of opinion regarding environmental effects, American Indian spirituality and traffic-flow efficiency all were aired during the public hearing that drew more than 700 people to a meeting hall at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds.
They came at the invitation of Col. Donald R. Curtis Jr., district engineer for the U.S. Corps of Engineers, who is expected to choose between two "preferred" alternatives for finishing the road between U.S. Highway 59 and Kansas Highway 10 at Noria Road:
A 32nd Street alignment, through the Baker Wetlands, at a cost of $105 million.
A 42nd Street alignment, running south of the Wakarusa River, at a cost of $128.5 million.
He asked for help making his decision, and he got it.
"This is one where you really have two different views," Curtis said during a break in the proceedings. "I don't think it's a right-or-wrong issue. I think you look at all the interests, and you try to choose an alternative that maximizes all the respective interests."
Varied interests were on display during the hearing visually, vocally and in writing. Most involved opinions about the 32nd Street route, the one proposed and backed by the Kansas Department of Transportation.
Dozens of opponents wore stickers declaring: "Wetlands Save it, don't pave it!"
Dozens of business leaders followed the advice of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce and showed up to support plans for the 32nd Street route.
Dozens of students from Haskell Indian Nations University stood to support leaders of the Wetlands Preservation Organization, which opposes any road through the wetlands.
At least a dozen elected officials from the area, past and present, argued that the 32nd Street route should be built.
No-no for American Indians
Ken Bordeau Three Feathers, an elder for three affiliated Sioux tribes, opened the public hearing with a traditional American Indian prayer. He solemnly chanted, then burned sweet grass before taking the microphone to address the crowd.
He urged people to understand American Indian opposition to the 32nd Street route, which would cut through the wetlands once held by Haskell and still considered sacred as an educational and spiritual area.
|Have your sayTo comment on the South Lawrence Trafficway, the project's draft environmental impact statement or the Kansas Department of Transportation's application to complete the highway through the Baker Wetlands, send e-mail to email@example.com or mail written comments to Robert J. Smith, special projects manager; Regulatory Branch, Room 706; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District; 601 E. 12th St.; Kansas City, MO 64106.The deadline for comments is Sept. 30. Corps officials intend to choose a route for the highway by the end of the year.|
"Our spirituality is our culture," he said, arguing that American Indian needs should be respected and heeded. "For others to make that decision for us is a no-no."
Others argued that the wetlands actually would be improved by the project. If the trafficway were to be built along a 32nd Street route, KDOT would spend $8.5 million to expand the wetlands, build a wetlands education center, relocate Haskell Avenue and Louisiana Street to the edges of the expanded wetlands, remove a section of 31st Street that cuts through the Haskell campus and provide financing for perpetual care of the wetlands.
"The 32nd Street route is the one that preserves the wetlands," said Sue Hack, Lawrence mayor. "This will be a model for years to come of how to preserve a valuable resource."
State transportation officials have pushed for the project, saying it would be needed to carry regional traffic between Topeka and Johnson County. The 32nd Street route would do so while providing the best solution for the environment, said Dean Carlson, the state's transportation secretary.
"I know win-win is an overused word, but in this case I believe win-win is an appropriate comment," Carlson said.
But the corps' preliminary study of the project the one that narrowed the "preferred" alternatives for the trafficway concluded that the 42nd Street route actually would be the best for the environment in terms of wetlands and cultural/historic resources.
The significance wasn't lost on representatives of environmental groups. Carrie Maynard-Moody, representing the area's 500-member chapter of the Sierra Club, said building along 32nd Street would cause an irrevocable loss to a valuable resource.
"To us, it's our Central Park," she said, likening the wetlands to New York City's signature green space. "Would New Yorkers allow the New York Department of Transportation to build a highway through their Central Park?"
The corps will accept public comments through Sept. 30, then compile a final environmental impact statement that is expected to recommend one route for the road. After another 30-day comment period, the corps would issue a record of decision that would clear the way for construction.
State officials say they have no intention of building a trafficway along 42nd Street but would hope to move forward along 32nd Street by year's end.
Opponents are counting on Curtis to reject the 32nd Street plan, but even if he doesn't the fight won't end there.
"We are not going to compromise on this," said Casey Douma, Haskell's student body president. "We will not allow this to happen."
Douglas County Sheriff's deputies arrested a man before the hearing and charged him with disorderly conduct for throwing a chocolate cake at Bill Sepic, president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce.