The Kansas Department of Transportation could file a lawsuit by the end of this year to resolve legal questions that have stalled completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway.
Sally Howard, chief counsel for the Kansas Department of Transportation, said her staff was exploring legal action to force groups that oppose completing the road through the Baker Wetlands to bring their arguments to court.
"I think it would be realistic to say that could happen by the end of the year," Howard said of a possible federal lawsuit.
Howard said it was obvious opponents of a 32nd Street route for the bypass do not have immediate plans to file a lawsuit challenging the project.
But KDOT needs to resolve the project's legal issues before it can properly lobby to fund the project. It has been estimated that about $110 million in funding is needed to complete the bypass, which would connect Interstate 70 west of town with Kansas Highway 10 east of town.
The bypass has been completed from Interstate 70 to Iowa Street - curving around southwest Lawrence - but the final leg of the trafficway has been embroiled in controversy for more than a decade as environmentalists and members of the Haskell Indian Nations University community have argued the road would severely damage the wetlands area adjacent to the Haskell campus.
Mayor Boog Highberger said he hoped KDOT would not initiate a lawsuit.
When he began his mayoral year term in April, Highberger said one of his primary goals would be to create a community consensus that the current plans to build the road through the wetlands should be abandoned and that the road instead should be built south of the Wakarusa River.
"I don't have a consensus to present yet, but I still believe that it is out there," Highberger said.
But Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson, a supporter of the 32nd Street route, said he believed KDOT needed to move forward.
"We're in a standoff situation right now," Johnson said. "I think KDOT is coming to the conclusion that they're going to have to initiate an action to get this project moving forward again."
Johnson also said he saw no momentum building for Highberger's idea to move the project south of the Wakarusa River.
"There seems like there are a lot of reasons why that is not going to happen," Johnson said.
Howard also said KDOT wasn't interested in Highberger's south-of-the-river option. She said she met with Highberger about two months ago and told the mayor that KDOT disagreed with his assessment that such a route would create little controversy in the community.
"We just don't believe that is true," Howard said.
Howard said KDOT officials believed the best plan remained the 32nd Street route, which received all the necessary approvals from federal agencies in March 2004.
Part of the approval process included an agreement between Baker University, the owner of the wetlands, and KDOT that would pay the university approximately $8.5 million to create and maintain 300 acres of new wetlands in the area to replace the approximately 65 to 100 acres that would be disturbed by the road project.
Bob Eye, an attorney who represented clients in a lawsuit that successfully stopped the project in the late 1990s, said he didn't have any comments about the possibility of a KDOT lawsuit. But he said he was reviewing boxes of documents related to the decision to build the road through the wetlands. He said there are legitimate questions about whether KDOT ever made a good-faith effort to study the feasibility of a route south of the Wakarusa River.
"We're doing our due diligence to review the documents and the evidence," Eye said.