The federal government says driving a highway through the Baker Wetlands is the best direction for completing the South Lawrence Trafficway, but a coalition of opponents isn't about to give the project a green light.
The four-lane highway should be finished along a 32nd Street alignment, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ruled Monday in its final environmental impact statement for the project.
The $110.2 million project would extend the existing trafficway from a barricaded bridge across U.S. Highway 59, at the southern edge of Lawrence, to Kansas Highway 10 at Noria Road, southeast of town.
The project also would remove 31st Street between Louisiana Street and Haskell Avenue, returning the property to Haskell Indian Nations University ownership. The road section would be rebuilt to the south, running along the north side of the new trafficway.
But longtime opponents of pouring 5.6 miles worth of concrete and thousands of vehicles a day into the former Haskell Wetlands promise to put up a fight.
Bruce Plenk, an attorney for the Wetlands Preservation Organization, said opponents would continue to flood corps officials with information about the project's inevitable destruction -- physical, cultural and spiritual.
The organization's core membership consists of Haskell students, but the group's cause also has been picked up by American Indian tribes, environmental groups and dozens of people opposed to the idea of anyone driving through the wetlands.
In 1997, the organization and similar coalitions filed suit to defeat a plan that would have run the trafficway along 31st Street. Plenk's clients won that time, and he sees no reason why this juncture should be any different.
"It's hard to see how putting six or eight lanes in the wetlands itself is better than putting four lanes at the edge of the wetlands," Plenk said. "It's hard for me to see that."
"I'm always hopeful that the agencies will make the right decision and see the light. There's so much evidence of the damage that will be done. The corps' job is to protect wetlands. I'm hopeful that they will see the light."
But proponents of building the 32nd Street route say things are different this time around. The key change: extensive mitigation.
While earlier plans for the trafficway called only for creation of a small area of new wetlands along the east side of Haskell Avenue, the latest plan -- the one blessed by the corps -- ties the Kansas Department of Transportation into a more extensive plan to reduce the highway's environmental and other damage.
The mitigation plan, expected to cost at least$8.5 million, includes:
- Installing mile-long noise walls along both sides of the trafficway as it cuts through the wetlands, between Louisiana Street and Haskell Avenue.
- Expanding the wetlands by 317 acres, mostly through acquiring fields and seeding them with native plants.
- Relocating Louisiana Street to the west and Haskell Avenue to the east, so they carry traffic farther from the heart of the existing wetlands, shielding them from development and traffic.
- Building a wetlands cultural and educational center.
- Establishing a $2 million endowment for Baker University to operate the center and maintain the school's wetlands.
- Creating a wooden boardwalk system, pouring a concrete path to connect the wetlands with Mary's Lake to the northeast and opening a passive camping area along the north side of the Wakarusa River.
|Copies of the final environmental impact statement are scheduled to be available for public review beginning late this afternoon at the following locations:
Lawrence Public LibraryLocal Document Collection707 Vt.
Kansas UniversityAnschutz Library, reference desk1301 Hoch Auditoria DriveLawrenceBaker UniversityCollins Library606 Eighth St.Baldwin
DeSoto Public Library33145 W. 83rd St.
Topeka and Shawnee County Public LibraryCIS Department1515 S.W. 10th Ave.
Johnson County Library9875 W. 87th St.Overland Park
In its document, the corps concluded that the 32nd Street plan and its required mitigation "is the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative available" to meet the project's purpose and need.
The conclusion was based, in part, on "consideration of future foreseeable cumulative impacts" in the area, the corps said.
That's music to the ears of Mike Rees, who has pushed for the project on behalf of state transportation officials.
"They've been a little courageous and exercised foresight," said Rees, chief counsel for the Kansas Department of Transportation. "You could take an extremely restrictive view of their responsibilities and say that any destruction of the wetlands is unacceptable -- and there could be some litigation over that issue.
"But the corps determined ... it's not a negative, in terms of wetlands, at all. It's a farsighted view. The corps' perception is exactly accurate. I don't see any reason why a court won't reach the same conclusion."
Legal decision await
Anna Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Wetlands Preservation Organization, said any decision about filing a lawsuit to stop the project would come after consultations with American Indian tribes and other supporters. Plenk said it would be senseless to file a suit before the corps issued its actual "record of decision," the last step to clear a way for construction.
Officials have said they cannot recall a case of the corps changing its mind about a project between the time a final environmental impact statement is issued and the time the record of decision is filed.
The corps' document officially becomes public Jan. 17, opening the door on a 30-day period for public comment. Comments may be e-mailed to Robert Smith, the corps' special projects manager, at email@example.com.
Copies of the document are expected to be delivered later this afternoon to government offices and libraries in the area, where they will be available for public review.
Contracts on way
Rees, meanwhile, is working to get the project as far along as possible before leadership changes at the department of transportation. Gov.-elect Kathleen Sebelius could announce her selection for transportation secretary as early as today, and that administrator could step into office Jan. 13 with plans open for starting work.
Rees said the state could hire contractors to start clearing a path for the road through the wetlands as early as the end of February. Contracts also will be drawn up to grade fields west of Louisiana Street to prepare for the extension of the Baker Wetlands, and negotiations for buying land for the road continue.
"We're anticipating that the business of KDOT will go on," Rees said. "This should stack up near the top. Just because there's a new administration doesn't mean that KDOT doesn't go on and KDOT's projects don't go on."