Don't expect bulldozers to begin rolling through the Baker Wetlands anytime soon, despite $1.5 million in new federal funding for the South Lawrence Trafficway.
Sally Howard, chief counsel for the Kansas Department of Transportation, said the most likely use of the money - secured by U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts as part of a federal transportation bill approved Friday - would be to allow Baker University to begin transplanting vegetation from the wetlands to an area west of Louisiana Street and south of 31st Street.
The area - now a farm field near the Wakarusa River, which runs about a mile south of 31st Street - would serve as a new manmade wetlands to help road builders meet a requirement to replace each acre of wetlands lost due to construction of the trafficway, which would connect Interstate 70 west of Lawrence to Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence via a path through the Baker Wetlands.
But no actual road building would begin under the project.
"I know that is not nearly as aggressive as some people would like," Howard said. "I know some people might envision us bringing the bulldozers in and getting started. I hope the community realizes that just isn't possible."
Starting roadwork would start the clock on a two-year window in which construction within the wetlands must be completed. Howard said KDOT wouldn't trigger that requirement without knowing the source of the remaining $110 million needed to complete the project.
Some supporters of the trafficway had hoped the $1.5 million in funding would allow the state to start enough action to spur a lawsuit from opponents of the road. Many SLT supporters believe a lawsuit would be beneficial to the project because it would resolve legal issues surrounding the road once and for all, and make it more likely state legislators would include the project in their funding plans.
City Commissioner David Schauner said he doubted the federal funding would do anything to help move the road project forward.
"It is obviously not enough to accomplish anything," Schauner said.
Schauner also criticized Roberts for including the $1.5 million funding - which specifically was earmarked for a road that went through the wetlands - in the transportation bill.
"I think it would be nice if the senator would ask the City Commission of Lawrence what it would like," said Schauner, who said the commission was never consulted about funding.
A spokeswoman with Roberts' office did not return messages seeking comment on the criticism, but in a release on Friday, Roberts said the project was "long overdue" and was important in creating a new life sciences corridor between Kansas State University and Kansas City.
Howard said KDOT had not requested the funding and also had not spoken with Roberts about it.
"Honestly, we were a bit surprised by the funding," Howard said. "We didn't know the funding was coming."
She said for that reason she couldn't definitively say how the money would be used. KDOT Secretary Deb Miller and other staff members would need to have internal conversations before signing off on the idea to use the money for wetland mitigation.
Howard also said she was uncertain whether work on the wetlands mitigation would spark a lawsuit from trafficway opponents. Attempts to reach Bob Eye, an attorney who has represented trafficway opponents, were unsuccessful. Howard said her office continued to seek ways to have a court rule on the legal issues surrounding the road absent a lawsuit from opponents.
KDOT also wants to continue to monitor Mayor Boog Highberger's efforts to build consensus for a route south of the Wakarusa River, Howard said.
Highberger said he was continuing to have private meetings with community members and was sensing more support for a south-of-the-river route. Highberger said that's why he was a bit baffled by the new federal funding for the Baker Wetlands route.
"My sense was that the funding may not be unrelated to my efforts to look at an alternative route," Highberger said.
Howard said the department had no timeline on deciding how to use the $1.5 million.