Despite objections from a majority of city commissioners, state leaders remain committed to building the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway, the long-delayed road meant to connect the city's growing west and east sides to Kansas Highway 10 and Johnson County.
"If we had the funds, we would begin construction immediately," Sally Howard, the chief counsel for the Kansas Department of Transportation, told city and county commissioners Wednesday morning.
Howard said the 32nd Street alignment is the state's No. 1 choice because it has received approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after a lengthy review process.
She said the fact that city commissioners - on a 3-2 split - agreed in January to adopt a city goal to lobby for a route south of the Wakarusa River had not changed the department's mind.
She flatly rejected a comment by Mayor Boog Highberger who suggested KDOT wasn't willing to "stick its neck out" to find funding for the project unless a more complete community consensus could be reached on a route.
"That's not what I said," Howard said. "We are not just going to sit back and wait until we have consensus. If we do that, we might as well not go forward at all."
But finding funding for the road remains a problem. KDOT leaders pegged the estimated cost to complete the road at "$110 million and growing." Howard said the project would be a candidate to receive funding as a part of any comprehensive transportation program the Legislature may pass in future years. But she also said it was likely that federal highway dollars would be needed, too.
Any road project that receives federal funding must receive approval from the Federal Highway Administration. Because the project recently received a special $1.5 million congressional appropriation late last year, that approval process will begin in the next month or two, Howard said.
The process includes an official public comment period where anybody can make comments about the proposed route. That would open the door for the City Commission and the Planning Commission to submit comments opposing a 32nd Street route. The County Commission likely would submit comments maintaining its support for the 32nd Street route.
Federal highway leaders must use their review to determine if there are "feasible and prudent" alternatives to running through the Baker Wetlands. Howard said that review is expected to take at least a year.
The need for Federal Highway Administration approval is new because state leaders had earlier planned to use only state dollars, but as project costs grow that strategy seems less likely, Howard said.
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Opponents of a wetlands route may find the Federal Highway's re-entry into the process encouraging. That's because the Federal Highway Administration in the 1990s refused to approve a wetlands route for the road.
"It possibly could be a positive development," said City Commissioner Mike Rundle, who along with Highberger and Commissioner David Schauner have said the road would create too much damage to the Baker Wetlands and is not in the right spot to best serve the community's expected southward growth.
But supporters of the wetlands route said today's situation is different than when the Federal Highway Administration was reviewing the project in the 1990s. Unlike in the '90s, the agency now has a fellow federal agency - the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - that has approved the route. Also, in the 1990s the Federal Highway Administration was reviewing a 31st Street route for the project. That route would have crossed Haskell Indian Nations University property. Haskell opposed that route. The route now under consideration would be built on property owned by Baker University, which supports the project.
Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson, a supporter of the wetlands route, said he didn't think Federal Highway Administration leaders would go against the Corps of Engineers' decision simply because Lawrence government leaders aren't unanimous on where the road should be built. He said such a split frequently happens in other communities.
"With any road project you have people who register their support or register their opposition," Johnson said. "They make their comments and go on. What's different here is that usually a decision is made and people go on with their lives. Here, some people have chosen not to go on with their lives."
Highberger said he would continue to push for a new route that would please people on both sides of the issue. He said he was encouraged by Howard's comments that KDOT would consider an alternative route if there was "evidence of a broad consensus." But Howard also quickly pointed out that she hadn't seen that evidence.
Highberger conceded consensus may not yet be evident, but said he believed it is growing.
"I think the majority of people I talk to just want something built that will carry traffic along the southern edge of town," Highberger said. "I don't think the majority of them care where the road will be as long as it meets the needs. That's what's changed. I think this is a historic opening that we have."
If a 32nd Street route is ultimately approved by the Federal Highway Administration, Howard said she could envision scenarios where construction on the road could begin this decade. But because KDOT doesn't have control over the funding, Howard said timing was difficult to predict.
South Lawrence Trafficway timeline
1930 Hare and Hare Landscape, of Kansas City, Mo., produces a "Major Thoroughfare Plan" for the Lawrence Planning Commission. The resulting map shows an early concept of a "boulevard" looping south around the city along 20th Street. 1964-74 A study by the State Highway Commission and Federal Highway Administration declares the need for relief for traffic congestion on 23rd and Iowa streets. 1971 The Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs grants Douglas County a 24-acre easement on Haskell Indian Nations University land for construction of 31st Street. Years later, engineers would decide to use the easement for the trafficway. 1985 County Commissioners announce consideration of a $3.5 million bond issue for a southern trafficway connecting Kansas Highway 10 to the east and the Kansas Turnpike to the northwest. 1986 ¢ A preliminary environmental impact statement reports the trafficway can be built with minimal harm to the Baker Wetlands and Elkins Prairie. ¢ Agnes T. Frog, created by trafficway opponents to draw attention to wetlands environmental issues, receives almost 30 percent of the vote as a write-in candidate for county commission. 1987-89 Leslie W. Blevins Sr. files suit in district court to prevent release of county trafficway money until a vote on the bond issue. After his plea for an injunction is denied at district and appellate courts, Blevins appeals to the Kansas Supreme Court. 1989 December - The Kansas Supreme Court rules the county commission exceeded its power by issuing $4 million in bonds. City and county officials get the court to reconsider but agree to put the bond issue on a ballot anyway. 1990 July - The high court reverses its ruling, saying the 1985 bond issue was legal. November - County residents vote 13,679 to 10,815, supporting $4 million in bonds for the trafficway. Three Douglas County residents sue alleging the explanation on the ballot unfairly influenced voters. The Elkins Prairie, an 80-acre patch of virgin prairie, is plowed by its owner, apparently an attempt to force a decision on a county purchase of the property. 1990-92 Douglas County District Judge Mike Malone dismisses the suit. The decision is appealed in early 1991. The appeals court reverses Malone's decision in October 1991, and the suit goes to the Kansas Supreme Court, which rules 6-0 on July 10, 1992, in favor of the county. 1992 December - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sends out public notices for comments about plans to mitigate the 31st Street wetlands in the path of the trafficway. Douglas County fails to include Haskell on the mailing list. Four individuals and a few agencies respond by the Jan. 18 deadline. The Corps approves the permit without further public hearings. 1993 February - A citizens group files suit in U.S. District Court against the Federal Highway Administration and Environmental Protection Agency for approving the trafficway's environmental impact statement. The plaintiffs allege the statement failed to consider a route south of the Wakarusa River. A federal judge later rules the study sufficiently considered impacts on the wetlands. 1994 April - Pressured by the U.S. Justice Department and other agencies, the Douglas County Commission orders a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS). August - Lawrence Chamber of Commerce has a groundbreaking for the western 9 miles of the trafficway. 1995 October - A 900-page draft of the SEIS is released. November - Kansas Natural Resource Council and two Haskell Indian Nations University students sue to force planners to alter the format of a public hearing scheduled on the SEIS. A federal judge denies the request, and the public hearing is attended by 633 people. 1996 November - The western 9 miles of the SLT opens to traffic. December - The Douglas County Commission endorses the 31st Street alignment. A Federal Highway Administration official makes public his agency's intent to withdraw, ending most federal environmental oversight and work on the SEIS, if the state and county agree to request no more federal funding for the road. 1997 March-July - American Indians and environmentalists sue to force completion of the SEIS. A U.S. District Judge issues an injunction halting work on the project until the impact statement is complete. July-December - The Army Corps of Engineers begins the review for a Section 404 permit, focusing largely on noise and visual impacts to Haskell. The Corps suggests it may require additional buffering for the 31st Street area, including trees and a noise wall. December - Haskell announces it will do its own noise mitigation study. 1998 In response to a lawsuit by American Indians and environmentalists, a federal judge halts work on the project until the impact statement is complete. 1999 February - Douglas County commissioners vote to spend $137,497 from about $10 million still set aside for the trafficway to complete the SEIS. May - The Haskell board of regents votes to "totally oppose" the trafficway's construction along 31st Street. June - A mitigation package valued at $5 million and offered to Haskell to gain university support for the trafficway is made public. October - Presentations by county, state and federal officials fail to sway Haskell regents, who again vote to oppose the trafficway along 31st Street. 2000 March - The final SEIS is released. The 5-inch-thick document includes the words "No Build" as the preferred alternative. Observers declare the project dead. 2001 April - KDOT Chief Counsel Mike Rees makes public his efforts to win support for a 32nd Street route that would move the project off Haskell property. October - The Lawrence Douglas County Planning Commission agrees to recommend a 32nd Street route. Haskell and federal officials issue a letter saying 31st Street should be vacated, the wetlands preserved and the trafficway built south of the Wakarusa River. 2002 January - Baker University and Kansas Department of Transportation officials tentatively agree to an $8.5 million package that would allow the South Lawrence Trafficway to be built through the university's wetlands. September - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers holds a public meeting soliciting input on the SLT route. More than 700 people attend. 2003 August - KDOT officials say the state has no money to complete the SLT. December - The Corps of Engineers says it prefers 32nd Street for the SLT over the 42nd Street alignment favored by wetlands preservationists. KDOT officials say they won't rule out beginning wetland mitigation immediately. 2004 January - KDOT announces it stopped buying land for the SLT, in anticipation of a lawsuit. March - The Corps of Engineers issues a permit for KDOT to complete the SLT along the 32nd Street alignment. 2005 November - Sen. Pat Roberts successfully pushes for a special $1.5 million congressional appropriation to get the SLT moving again. 2006 January - City commissioners agree to start lobbying for a south-of-the-Wakarusa River route for the trafficway. March - KDOT leaders say despite the city's lobbying, it is still committed to a 32nd Street route.