Lawrence residents should be well warmed up for this one: A federal agency is seeking comment on whether the controversial South Lawrence Trafficway should be built through the Baker Wetlands or south of the Wakarusa River.
The Federal Highway Administration on Tuesday released a draft report that said those two options continue to be the most likely route for the eastern leg of the bypass connecting the Kansas Turnpike west of Lawrence with Kansas Highway 10 east of the city. The western nine miles of the road are finished and open, but the eastern third remains only in the planning stage.
Now, the federal agency just has to decide which route it is willing to issue a permit for to allow the long-stalled project to move forward.
"We want to get the public's input into the decision," said Wendall Meyer, an assistant division administrator for the agency, who said past calls for such comments easily have generated more than 500 letters from supporters and opponents of the long-talked-about road.
The most recent report - called a Draft 4(f) Evaluation - doesn't make a recommendation on which route the road should follow. But the report does include several comments that are friendly to arguments made by supporters of the wetlands route, also known as a 32nd Street alignment.
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Specifically, the report says the 32nd Street route - even though it would allow a road to go through the wetlands - would do more to protect the wetlands than the southern route along a 42nd Street alignment.
That's because Federal Highway Administration officials contend the south-of-the-river route would spur significant amounts of new growth south of the Wakarusa River. That growth would create more traffic along the edges of the wetlands, which are bordered by Haskell Avenue on the east, Louisiana Street on the west and 31st Street on the north.
The 32nd Street option would attempt to mitigate those traffic issues by creating a buffer area around the wetlands. The 32nd Street option proposes moving Louisiana Street about 2,500 feet west of its current location, and would relocate Haskell Avenue about 1,000 feet east of its current location. The buffer area would contain manmade wetlands that would be permanently protected from development.
The Kansas Department of Transportation, which is pushing for the 32nd Street route, has not made any plans to provide such mitigation efforts if a 42nd Street route is chosen for the project.
"The mitigation package has been almost completely overlooked by the public," Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson said. "I've felt like once people really look at that, they would realize it makes all the sense in the world to support the 32nd Street alignment."
Opponents of the 32nd Street route, though, said federal regulators need to recognize the wetlands' significance to the community.
"For many, many people in town that area is very important," City Commissioner Boog Highberger said. "It would be an affront to half the people in this town to build a road through it."
Highberger said he hopes Federal Highway Administration officials can be convinced to support a south-of-the-river option, but he doesn't support the current southern option that is being considered.
The proposed southern route, called 42nd Street, would be built about 2,000 feet north of the existing North 1100 Road. It would be a freeway-style road with just three interchanges.
Highberger thinks a "high-capacity boulevard" with at-grade intersections and traffic signals should be built on either the existing right of way of North 1100 Road or North 1000 Road.
Using existing right of way would be more environmentally friendly and would help control costs, he said. And building a boulevard-style road would better serve the needs of the city, Highberger said, because a freeway-style road would act like a "Berlin Wall" to separate the northern and southern parts of the city.
Johnson said a boulevard road might serve the city well but would be poor at moving regional traffic around the city. That would be a problem, he said, because that's one of the major goals of KDOT, which would be the major funding source for the road.
Members of the public have until Jan. 5 to submit written comments on the South Lawrence Trafficway route. Comments can be sent to Wendall L. Meyer, assistant division administrator, Federal Highway Administration Kansas Division Office, 6111 S.W. 29th St., Topeka 66614. The agency also will have an open house to discuss the report from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Kansas National Guard Armory, 200 Iowa. Copies of the report can be viewed on the Internet at www.ksdot.org/projects/search.asp. The report also is available for viewing at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt. The agency is expected to make a final decision on a route in the spring or early summer. In addition to the 4(f) report, the agency is working on releasing an Environmental Impact Statement for the project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers previously approved a 32nd Street route for the trafficway, but the Federal Highway Administration must review the project if the state plans to use any federal funds to build the road.