South Lawrence Trafficway
- SLT controversy grips County Commission (10-11-07)
- Questions about SLT to be addressed at meeting (10-09-07)
- Feds don't have SLT preference, official says (09-15-07)
- SLT gets push (09-11-07)
- Agenda packet of Douglas County Commission, which includes letter exchangebetween Federal Highway Administration and Douglas County officials onSLT (.pdf)
One last chance for compromise.
When it comes to building the final leg of the controversial South Lawrence Trafficway, Grant Eichhorn - chairman of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission - has an idea he hopes would work.
Eichhorn said Wednesday that he thinks there's still a chance to reach a deal with Haskell Indian Nations University that would keep the SLT out of a wetlands area the university considers sacred.
The idea: Expand the number of lanes on 31st Street, in exchange for moving the proposed trafficway south of the Wakarusa River.
"I'm trying to find some way to help a large part of our community feel good about moving forward on this project," Eichhorn said.
But any deal will have to happen fast.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission is creating a comprehensive transportation plan for the county. It must be finished by the end of the year to meet federal guidelines, Eichhorn said. He said a compromise with Haskell would be needed before the plan is completed.
A key part of the deal has to include securing additional right of way to expand the number of lanes on 31st Street, Eichhorn said. If the existing 31st Street can't be widened - probably to at least four lanes - Eichhorn said he would continue to support the current proposal for the trafficway, called the 32nd Street route. That proposal calls for constructing the trafficway through Baker Wetlands and moving 31st Street south of the existing 31st Street. The current 31st Street would be abandoned.
Funding at stake
The Planning Commission that Eichhorn chairs ultimately could play an important role in the future route of the SLT.
That's because in order for the project to be eligible to receive any federal funding, a specific route must be included on the Transportation 2030 plan that the planning commission is developing. In other words, if the planning commission doesn't include the wetlands route in the Transportation 2030 plan, it wouldn't be eligible for federal funding.
By federal law, the Planning Commission - not the County Commission or City Commission - has final authority in creating the Transportation 2030 plan.
Several supporters of the 32nd Street route option criticized Eichhorn's proposed deal Wednesday.
"It is so far off the chart, it hardly deserves a comment," Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson said.
Johnson said there has been no indication that Haskell and the Bureau of Indian Affairs - which controls the property - is willing to give right of way to widen 31st Street.
Haskell spokesman Charlie Hawkins said the university would have to hear more about the idea before commenting.
Mayor Sue Hack said even if Haskell did agree to an expanded 31st Street, she highly doubts the Kansas Department of Transportation would remain involved in the trafficway project. She said KDOT has made it clear it won't fund a trafficway built south of the river.
"They'll take their money and spend it somewhere else in the state," Hack said.
But the biggest problem, Hack said, is that no formal planning has been done for a route south of the Wakarusa. She said such a route couldn't be completed in time to help the city deal with increased traffic loads expected to come when U.S. Highway 59 is widened to four lanes.
Eichhorn, though, said he suspects that would be the case with a 32nd Street route as well, because environmentalists and other will challenge it in court, saying the road would damage the wetlands' environmental and cultural significance.
Michael Caron, executive director of the Save the Wakarusa Wetlands Organization, said he can promise a lawsuit.
"Either something like this is seriously put on the table and people come intending to find a resolution, or we end up with a 32nd Street federal lawsuit that will drag this thing on for many, many years," Caron said.
Caron has been promoting a compromise similar to Eichhorn's for several months. He said he thinks Haskell could be convinced to live with a wider 31st Street, if the road is built in the right way.
That would include using special pavement that reduces tire noise, low speed limits, a prohibition of heavy truck traffic, and plenty of "toad tunnels" and an archway bridge that would allow both pedestrians and wildlife to safely cross the road. Special American Indian artwork along the route and a parking area and entrance for the wetlands also should be included.
He said the 1-mile stretch of road could become a federal demonstration project on how roads and wetlands can co-exist.
"There are ways that I could see this getting done, but it won't be done by putting the screws to Haskell to get them to give up more land," Caron said.