Local fight promised against SLT in wetlands

Environmentalists say federal decision hasn't lessened their resolve

South Lawrence Trafficway: 32nd and 42nd St. options

Let the trench-digging begin.

One day after federal regulators took a major step in approving a project to build the South Lawrence Trafficway through the Baker Wetlands, preparations already were under way Wednesday to convert the wetlands into a battleground.

“I can tell you that the environmental community and the Haskell community are as committed as ever to protecting the wetlands and not losing one square inch of the wetlands to highway construction,” said Bob Eye, a Lawrence resident who serves as an attorney for the Wetlands Preservation Organization.

Threats of a lawsuit over the decision by the Federal Highway Administration to allow a 32nd Street route for the uncompleted bypass project are not a surprise. Eye and his group successfully halted the project in federal court in the 1990s.

“You’d have to be foolish to think that a lawsuit won’t be filed,” said Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson, a supporter of completing the road through the wetlands.

But Johnson said the Federal Highway Administration’s rulings this week bolster the project’s legal standing. The decision represents another federal agency that believes completing the road through the wetlands is the most “prudent and feasible” option available. In 2003, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also reached that conclusion.

Technically, the Federal Highway Administration took two actions this week. First, the department agreed to adopt the Environmental Impact Statement that was approved by the Corps of Engineers in 2003. It looks at the environmental impact the road would have on adjacent property. Regulators also adopted a report called a 4(f) evaluation, which looks at whether the road would affect the historical and cultural value of adjacent property.

Both reports found that the wetland route – known as a 32nd Street alignment – was better than a 42nd Street route that would avoid the wetlands by going south of the Wakarusa River.

Support for route

Among the reasons the regulators gave for supporting the wetland route:

¢ The wetland route does the best job of routing regional traffic around the city and taking some local traffic off of streets such as 23rd and 31st streets and Haskell Avenue. In total, the report estimates that the 32nd Street route will result in 240 fewer vehicle accidents during a 20-year period than the 42nd Street route.

¢ The wetland route will cost less to construct. The 32nd Street route is estimated to cost $147.9 million to complete. The 42nd Street option is estimated at $166.9 million.

¢ Traffic on Haskell Avenue will increase significantly if the road is built south of the Wakarusa River. The report estimates – based on traffic models – that traffic on Haskell would be 4,200 cars per day greater with a 42nd Street route than a 32nd Street route.

¢ The 32nd Street route – the route that would run the road through the wetlands – would actually provide a net benefit to the wetlands area. That’s because state transportation leaders already have committed to do a significant mitigation project if the road is built on 32nd Street.

The package includes moving Haskell Avenue east and Louisiana Street west from their current locations to provide a natural buffer area for the wetlands. The buffer area would be converted into man-made wetlands. The buffer area also would house a 10,000-square-foot wetland and educational center run by Baker University. Baker also would be provided an annuity designed to fund future maintenance of the wetlands. Campgrounds and parking sites to make the wetlands more accessible also would be located in the buffer area.

The project also includes noise walls designed to shelter the wetlands from the road.

Opponents not happy

The mitigation package has not impressed opponents of the project. Michael Caron, executive director of the Save the Wakarusa Wetlands Organization, said the mitigation package won’t make up for having multiple lanes of traffic run through the environmentally sensitive area. He said there will be too much light, noise, air and water pollution from the project.

“There will still be some life left in the wetlands, but it will be the equivalent of pigeons, rats and cockroaches that survive any disaster,” Caron said.

Eye said he’s confident his group will find several legal arguments to make to challenge the Federal Highway’s rulings. The main one, he said, is that the regulators didn’t make a good-faith effort to identify a prudent route south of the Wakarusa River. Eye contends the 42nd Street route was chosen by regulators to study because they knew it wouldn’t compare well to the 32nd Street route.

“It was an intellectually dishonest process,” Eye said.

Doug Hecox, a spokesman with the Federal Highway Administration, said that wasn’t accurate.

“It is a difficult process, and we know there will be a number of people who disagree with the conclusion,” Hecox said. “But we want them to understand that it is not a conclusion that was arrived at lightly.”

Lawmakers’ praise

The rulings were drawing praise from several members of the state’s congressional delegation. U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback and Rep. Todd Tiahrt released a joint statement Wednesday expressing optimism that the project could begin moving forward again.

They said the project “is critical for safety and the economic development of the Kansas Technology Corridor. We must look to the future and make this investment to help create the bioscience and high-tech corridor from Manhattan to Topeka to Lawrence to Kansas City.”

The federal support is expected to be critical for the project. Once the Federal Highway Administration issues the final Record of Decision – expected to happen in about 30 days – the project will become eligible for federal funding. Federal and state funding – which likely will be sought as part of a new comprehensive transportation plan for the state – is expected to pay for the bulk of the project.