City commissioners have pledged to work on getting the stalled South Lawrence Trafficway project moving again - albeit in a different direction than other local leaders have envisioned.
City commissioners during their goal-setting session for 2006 made it a top priority to become more active in lobbying to build the uncompleted South Lawrence Trafficway south of the Wakarusa River rather than along an approved 32nd Street route through the Baker Wetlands.
"I think we have the foundation for a consensus that we've never had before," then-Mayor Boog Highberger said about the roadway issue, which has been debated for two decades. "I think the people who want the road most strongly don't care where it goes, and I think people who have traditionally opposed the road now recognize that we need a new east-west route in south Lawrence."
But the sentiment is far from unanimous. Two of the five city commissioners - Mike Amyx and Sue Hack - did not support the city goal. And the idea has drawn criticism from Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson. The County Commission in 2001 endorsed a 32nd Street route when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Kansas Department of Transportation asked for comment on the proposed route. The corps ultimately gave the route approval.
The City Commission during that public comment period chose to take no position on the route. Johnson said that for the city to begin lobbying now would be inappropriate.
"The thing that irritates me is that now someone wants to suggest that the City Commission should weigh in on this, but people forget that they chose not to," Johnson said. "And it is almost preposterous to think that some vote by a local governing body at this point is going to make the corps think they made a mistake. The corps took its job seriously, and they have gathered a lot of information."
The new city position comes at a time when the 32nd Street route has received a bit of a federal boost. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts successfully included $1.5 million in funding in a federal transportation bill to spur activity on the project. State officials have estimated that about $110 million will be needed to complete the bypass, which would connect the Kansas Turnpike west of Lawrence with Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence. The western portion of the road is built, but dead ends at U.S. Highway 59 in south Lawrence.
KDOT hasn't announced a firm plan for how it would spend the new trafficway funding, but there have been hopes that the $1.5 million would be used to get enough work started to spur a lawsuit from opponents of the road. Supporters of the roadway have said they need to get the promised legal battle done and over with before they can start lobbying for funding for the remaining $110 million. But since no work has been under way on the road project, environmentalists who oppose the project have had no reason to file a lawsuit.
Opponents of the roadway have said they are watching the situation closely and are still adamantly opposed to running the road through the wetlands. Bob Eye, a Topeka attorney who represents opponents, called Roberts' appropriation "good money after bad."
"I think their zeal to pave the wetlands is misguided and ultimately contrary to the community's best interests," Eye said.
The 32nd Street route would run just south of the existing 31st Street. The project as approved would include a rebuilding of 31st Street to carry local traffic and would pay Baker University - the owner of the wetlands - about $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.
Baker leaders have supported the plan.