Archive for Saturday, December 13, 2003

Corps selects route for SLT

32nd Street alignment wins official approval

December 13, 2003


Federal officials on Friday gave final approval to a 32nd Street route to complete the South Lawrence Trafficway -- action that brought praise from supporters and promises of lawsuits from opponents.

Even with permission, however, state officials said Friday they could not afford to build the $110.2 million road now.

"Given the fact that the budget continues to be extremely tight, we do not anticipate funding this project for quite some time," said Sally Howard, chief counsel for the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Col. Donald R. Curtis Jr., district engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said he decided the 32nd Street route would be shorter, safer and cheaper than a 42nd Street route south of the Wakarusa River.

"I think, after looking at a whole bunch of factors ... we felt that, overall, it was the best alternative," Curtis said.

But opponents of the 32nd Street route -- who don't want any portion of the Baker Wetlands to be destroyed to make way for the highway -- said their proposals were given short shrift by the corps.

"This was a decision that was prejudged from the beginning," said Bruce Plenk, an attorney for the Wetlands Preservation Organization, which brought a successful lawsuit against a previous trafficway effort during the 1990s.

"There is a lawsuit coming," Plenk said. "The exact timing will depend on how many people choose to join the lawsuit."

Pros, cons

A route to complete the trafficway has been sought since 1985 , when county commissioners announced plans for the road. City and state officials see it as key to alleviating traffic in southern Lawrence .

The proposed bypass would connect Kansas Highway 10 on the city's east side with Interstate 70 northwest of Lawrence. The western leg of the trafficway has been finished and terminates at U.S. Highway 59 in southern Lawrence.

The Baker Wetlands have been at the center of the fight to complete the trafficway.

Opponents say the 32nd Street route will cause unnecessary damage to the wetlands, and will be offensive to American Indian tribes who believe the wetlands -- located near Haskell Indian Nations University -- are sacred.

"The wetlands mean a lot to us as Indian people, and to Indians across the country," said Jackie Mitchell, a council member for the Mayetta-based Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe. The tribe urged the corps to approve a route south of the Wakarusa River, along 42nd Street instead of 32nd Street.

"They should've listened to what we said," Mitchell said, "that we do not want it going through that area."

But proponents of the 32nd Street route say new wetlands will be built, away from the highway, to make up for damage done by the road. And officials are promising to create a wetlands education center as part of the project.

"The Baker Wetlands will be larger and improved," said Douglas County Commission Chairman Bob Johnson, a trafficway supporter. "It'll be there, it'll be there for years to come, and it'll be significant not just to our community, but to our state and region."

Curtis said his decision would lead to less damage for the wetlands -- and that belief was a factor in his decision.

A 42nd Street route would draw Lawrence development farther south and create a larger threat to the wetlands, Curtis said.

"32nd Street alignment, short-term, yes, a larger impact" on the wetlands, Curtis said. "Long-term, perhaps a different result."

Plenk disagreed, noting that Lawrence officials already are planning to accommodate 20,000 people living south of the river.

"Frankly that's ridiculous," he said. "This is going to be a road that goes right through the middle of Lawrence by the time it's built."

Optimism, disappointment

Between the anticipated legal challenges and lack of funding, trafficway supporters know it might be years before construction can begin.

Still, they were mildly optimistic Friday.

"My instant reaction is one of good news," Johnson said. "My guess is that it's not a reaction that will be shared by everyone. My hope is, when emotions settle down, almost everyone will be able to see the true benefits to our community at large."

Lawrence City Commissioner Sue Hack agreed.

"It's an alignment that I've been supportive of since it first emerged," she said. "I think the mitigation program that KDOT has proposed will be very helpful to all the parties involved. With any luck, we can continue to move forward on it."

Opponents said they were disappointed and angry. Work has already begun on drafting a lawsuit to challenge the decision, they said.

"A 32nd Street route continues to be a travesty, both for the destruction of the existing wetlands and also a travesty for the Native American populations," said Charles Benjamin, an attorney for the Kansas Sierra Club.

Mitchell said her tribe would consider joining the lawsuit.

"We would support any opposition that comes out of this decision," she said. "If there's any other groups that come up, we will support them fully."

Howard said KDOT would oppose any lawsuit, but wouldn't take any action to start roadwork until the court challenges were completed.

"This is a priority for KDOT," she said. "If there was the funding here, we would certainly construct it."

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