North or south?
After more than two decades of discussion, that's the question that is now at the center of the debate surrounding the uncompleted South Lawrence Trafficway.
Activity on the controversial road project began to ramp back up in late 2006 as the Federal Highway Administration had two separate public hearings on the project to determine whether the road should be built north or south of the Wakarusa River.
Wendall Meyer, assistant division administrator with the Federal Highway Administration, said his office is reviewing the several hundred comments the department received on the project and expects to make two key rulings in late May that will affect the route of the project.
"We've gone through all the comments and are in the process of analyzing all of those that we believe are substantive," Meyer said. "We're working on responses for all of those. We really want to make sure we address the comments from the public."
If the road were built north of the Wakarusa River, it would go through the Baker Wetlands, an idea that has drawn opposition from environmentalists and members of the Haskell Indian Nations University community. If it were built south of the river, it would avoid the wetlands, but Kansas Department of Transportation leaders and a majority of Douglas County commissioners have said the road likely wouldn't be as effective at serving traffic needs.
The two studies undertaken by the Federal Highway Administration both address what impact the road would have on the wetlands. One report deals with environmental impacts; the other studies whether the road would impact the property's historical significance.
Federal highway leaders will use the results of those two reports to issue a Record of Decision that will give state and local roadbuilders the permits needed to build the final section of the road. Meyer said that Record of Decision is expected by the end of July.
The western nine miles of the trafficway - which is designed to connect the Kansas Turnpike west of Lawrence with Kansas Highway 10 east of the city - are finished and open. But the eastern third of the road remains only in the planning stage.
Since state roadbuilders would like to use federal funding to help pay for the $100 million-plus project, the Federal Highway Administration has to sign off on a route for the road.
32nd vs. 42nd
The administration released a draft report in November detailing the two proposed routes but did not make a recommendation on which route the road should follow.
However, it does include several comments that back arguments made by supporters of the wetlands route, also known as the 32nd Street alignment.
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 route south of the Wakarusa River, which is called the 42nd Street route.
That's because Federal Highway 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.
Opponents to the 32nd Street route, however, have said the trafficway would harm the wetlands and would be culturally insensitive to adjacent Haskell Indian Nations University, which has a long history with the land.
Since the draft report was issued in November, Meyer said his office has been doing additional review of several key assumptions made in the draft report, such as traffic projections for portions of Louisiana Street and Haskell Avenue, and cost estimates for the project.
City Commission input
During the recent City Commission campaign, several candidates made pitches to build the final portion of the trafficway south of the river along existing road right-of-way. Boog Highberger - who during his time as Lawrence mayor in 2006 pushed to build consensus for a south-of-the-river route - said improvements could be made to North 1000 Road or North 1100 Road to make for a better route into the growing portions of southern Johnson County, which is expected to be home to a major Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway yard.
"If you look at the long-term regional transportation patterns, it makes sense," Highberger said of a southern route.
The issue did create a split on the City Commission in 2006. The previous City Commission - prior to the April elections - agreed on a 3-2 vote to send a letter officially opposing a 32nd Street route for the trafficway. Only Commissioners Mike Amyx and Sue Hack voted to support a 32nd Street route.
But the opposition from the city did not stop the Kansas Department of Transportation from continuing to support the 32nd Street route. KDOT leaders have told the city that it would like to seek funding for a 32nd Street route as part of a future comprehensive transportation program that it hopes will be approved by the Kansas legislature.
32nd and 42nd: Comparing the plans
Here's a look at some of the comparisons between the two proposed routes for the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway, according to a report from the Federal Highway Administration:
¢ Cost. The 32nd Street route would cost $123.1 million in 2007 dollars. The 42nd Street route would cost $175.8 million in 2007 dollars.
¢ Environment. The 32nd Street route would disturb 58 acres of wetlands, but mitigation plans call for the purchase of several pieces of ground that would be added to the wetlands complex. The purchases would include 247 acres to be converted into a wet meadow, 37 acres to use as tallgrass prairie and 16 acres that would be converted to riparian woodlands.
The 32nd Street mitigation package also includes 17 acres of manmade wetlands that already have been constructed near the Baker Wetlands.
The 42nd Street route would disturb 3.07 acres of wetlands, but mitigation plans call for 80 acres of wetland and habitat enhancement. That includes the purchase of 63 acres of farmland near the Baker Wetlands to be converted to a wet meadow and the use of 17 acres of existing manmade wetlands.
¢ Amenities. The mitigation plan for the 32nd Street route includes the construction, at state expense, of a 10,000-square-foot cultural wetland center that would be operated by Baker University. The center would have classrooms and exhibit space and be connected to a new trail and boardwalk area.
The state also is proposing hike and bike trails that would link the wetland center with Marys Lake and the city's Prairie Park Nature Center. The state is proposing to provide an annuity to Baker University to cover annual operational costs for the wetlands and the center.
The plan also calls for a camping area in the southwest quarter of the wetlands. The wetlands area would be served by three new parking lots to provide easier access for visitors. Two trails would be built to connect Haskell with the wetlands area.
The 42nd Street route would provide one new parking lot for the Baker Wetlands area.
¢ Local streets. The 32nd Street plan would, at state expense, relocate the portions of Haskell Avenue that border the wetlands farther east and the portions of Louisiana Street farther west to create a buffer area around the wetlands. The state also would pay to move the existing 31st Street slightly south to take it off Haskell property. The land the street currently sits on would be turned over to Haskell for use as a wetland.
The 42nd Street route would not move any portion of Haskell, Louisiana or 31st Street. The state has only committed to reconstruct any roads that are directly affected by the construction.
¢ Relocations. The 32nd Street route would cause four homes and four businesses to be relocated and sever 11 farms. The 42nd Street route would cause three homes and one business to be relocated and would sever 12 farms.