Proposal would abandon trafficway

Letter to FHA urges eastern bypass instead

Scrap the SLT. Build more roundabouts.

Those are key elements of a proposal – which could be endorsed by the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission – to give up the long-delayed completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway in favor of a new eastern bypass and an extended 31st Street controlled by roundabouts.

Commissioners will meet Monday evening to consider sending an official letter to federal regulators reviewing plans for the controversial SLT. Planning Commissioner John Haase is behind the effort to adopt a major shift in the project’s direction.

“I think Lawrence and Douglas County need to begin focusing on the real game, which is building an eastern bypass, not the South Lawrence Trafficway,” Haase said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2001 approved a 32nd Street route for the trafficway, but the project has lacked funding to proceed. Now, however, the Federal Highway Administration is taking written public comments as it decides whether to move ahead.

Supporters of a 32nd Street route for the trafficway – which would run the road through the Baker Wetlands – said Haase’s plan was nothing more than an attempt to complicate the trafficway project, which has dragged on for about two decades.

“It doesn’t surprise me because anything to muddy up the waters is better for the noncompletion of the trafficway,” said County Commissioner Jere McElhaney, who supports the 32nd Street route. “It is just a ridiculous plan. But this Planning Commission thrives on controversy.”

The details

In his draft letter to the Federal Highway Administration, Haase offers details for his proposal. They include:

¢ Build a new bypass somewhere east of Lawrence that would connect Interstate 70 with Kansas Highway 10. Haase said the road would not be the old “Eastern Bypass” proposal that would have run a road through East Lawrence neighborhoods. Instead, he envisions the bypass beginning near Noria Road and heading north over a new Kansas River bridge.

¢ Downgrade the existing western portion of the SLT from a major highway to a city street that would have a speed limit of 40 to 45 mph. He’s also suggesting that roundabouts be installed to control traffic at each at-grade intersection along the route.

¢ Extend the existing 31st Street westward to connect with the SLT where it dead-ends at U.S. Highway 59. His plan also calls for extending 31st Street eastward to an unspecified point to connect with Kansas Highway 10. The entire stretch of 31st Street also would have roundabouts at each intersection to control traffic and also discourage large truck traffic.

¢ The extended 31st Street would be a two-lane road and would be built on its current roadbed through the Baker Wetlands, eliminating the need to take more wetlands for the project. Several environmentalists have opposed the proposed route for the trafficway because it would extend into the wetlands.

Much weight?

It’s not clear how much weight the Federal Highway Administration will give to the public comments it receives. City commissioners this week sent a letter urging the administration to consider a route south of the Wakarusa River. Mike Bowen, division administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, said the agency would review all comments received by the end of May and could make a decision in about six months. He said the agency had received about 50 comments thus far.

It’s also not clear whether planning commissioners will endorse Haase’s idea. Planning Commissioner Dennis Lawson said he was undecided.

“When I read it, my first thought was that it seemed to be a fairly ambitious plan,” Lawson said. “I’m going to need to hear the debate Monday night to find out the ideas behind it.”

Lawson said he also expected some debate over whether it was appropriate for the Planning Commission – an appointed, not elected body – to send an official letter to the Federal Highway Administration.

McElhaney said he would much prefer planning commissioners defer to the professional judgment of state and federal officials who already have reviewed the road project and determined 32nd Street to be the best route.

“I wasn’t aware that Mr. Haase went and got his traffic engineering degree in the last few months,” McElhaney said.

But Haase said he believes the community will kick itself if it does not begin advocating for an eastern bypass. He said the recent announcement by the Kansas Turnpike Authority to build a new I-70 interchange east of Lawrence in Leavenworth County will fuel additional talk of an eastern bypass.

The biggest question, he said, is whether the eastern connection will be near Lawrence or farther east toward Johnson County.

“I really believe,” Haase said, “that there is enough pressure building for an eastern bypass from folks in Johnson County, Tonganoxie, Eudora and that whole area, that the project will be funded.”

The commission meets at 7 p.m. in City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.