Transportation planners add another option to SLT mix

No longer is it just north vs. south. Add east to the mix.

For more than a decade, the simmering battle over the uncompleted South Lawrence Trafficway project has been whether the road should go north of the Wakarusa River – through the Baker Wetlands – or go south of the river to avoid the wetland area that American Indian groups and environmentalists consider sacred.

Now, area transportation planners are saying the community should spend some time gazing east. On Wednesday, area planners – who are putting together a new comprehensive transportation plan for the city and county – agreed to consider a new Kansas River bridge project that would create a new road east of Lawrence to connect Interstate 70 with Kansas Highway 10.

“We’re supposed to be forward-thinking with this plan, and I think that means we have to consider this option,” said Lisa Harris, a Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commissioner who is part of the Transportation 2030 group.

Three options

The new wrinkle has set up a potential winner-take-all battle among three major road projects. That’s because the Transportation 2030 group said it also wanted detailed traffic models for two other road projects: an SLT project that would build the road through the Baker Wetlands on a route known as 32nd Street; and an SLT project that would run the road south of the Wakarusa River on a route known as 42nd Street.

By the end of the year, the group is expected to pick one – and only one – of the three projects to include in the Transportation 2030 plan. That’s significant because that means the two projects left out of the plan won’t be eligible to receive federal funding. Each of the three projects are expected to cost at least $130 million, meaning federal funding will be important to any of the projects.

Committee members said they hope the traffic models – which are being developed by the Kansas Department of Transportation – will provide an answer to which provides the best “bang for the buck” when it comes to relieving east-west traffic congestion in Lawrence.

The traffic models, though, likely aren’t the only factor the committee will need to consider. Representatives from KDOT on Wednesday said they would have lots of questions about either the Kansas River bridge project or a 42nd Street route for the South Lawrence Trafficway.

They said it is important to remember that the 32nd Street route for the trafficway already has been endorsed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is an important part of the environmental approvals needed for the road. The Federal Highway Administration currently is studying the route, and KDOT is hopeful that the agency soon will approve a key permit for the 32nd Street route.

Joel Skelley, a transportation planner with KDOT, said there would be a lot of questions associated with a new eastern bypass project – which would run from somewhere near Noria Road or County Route 1057 to connect with I-70 and U.S. Highway 24-40 in either Douglas or Leavenworth counties.

Skelley said it was possible large portions of that project would need to be built on an elevated surface to prevent it from flooding. That would add significantly to the cost. No cost estimates for the project have been made, but the group agreed it would be more expensive than either of the SLT options, which are in the $150 million range.

Other projects

Members of the Transportation 2030 group did discuss and reach agreement on several smaller road projects that they believe should be completed in the next two decades. They include:

¢ Extending Wakarusa Drive south from Clinton Parkway to connect with County Route 458 south of Lawrence.

¢ Widening County Route 458 to four lanes from the new extended Wakarusa Drive to U.S. Highway 59.

¢ Extending Haskell Avenue south to County Road N 1100. Haskell Avenue also would be widened to four lanes from 23rd Street to N 1100 Road.

¢ Widening County Road N 1100 to four lanes from the new extended Haskell Avenue to U.S. Highway 59.

¢ Widening the existing portion of the South Lawrence Trafficway to four lanes.

¢ Extending Peterson Road westward to connect with the SLT near the Lecompton turnpike interchange. The Transportation 2030 group, however, did not endorse a route for an extended Peterson Road. Picking a route for the road has been controversial because there is park land and other environmentally sensitive property in the area.

¢ Extending 31st Street out to either Noria Road or County Route 1057.

To stay in compliance with federal guidelines, the Transportation 2030 plan needs to be completed by the end of the year. The committee – which includes a mix of planning, city and county commissioners along with city and county engineers – will present the plan to the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission. The Planning Commission – acting in its federally designated role as the Metropolitan Planning Organization – is responsible for giving final approval to the plan.