It is an exercise in careful penmanship.
Federal regulators are still working on the last pieces of paperwork needed to give final approval of a controversial South Lawrence Trafficway route that would run through the Baker Wetlands.
"We're looking for every 't' crossed and every 'i' dotted before we release the document," Doug Hecox, a spokesman with the Federal Highway Administration, said of the necessary paperwork to give federal approval to the trafficway project. "Our approval essentially is an endorsement that everything was done by the book and no corners were cut."
The document, called a Record of Decision, originally was expected in December or January, but Hecox said the department is now hoping for a late-spring release.
But the department already has foreshadowed what the document will say. In November, federal highway officials approved two key documents further clearing the way for the bypass project to be built along a route known as 32nd Street. The route would be just south of the existing 31st Street and would run the trafficway through the Baker Wetlands.
The November approval brought praise from trafficway supporters, and promises of a lengthy legal battle from environmentalists and Native Americans who have long opposed a route through the wetlands.
"It is just another giant step toward the completion of the trafficway," Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson said of the November approvals.
Bob Eye, a Lawrence resident and environmental attorney, said the November approvals - which he said were the result of an "intellectually dishonest process" - would mark the beginning point of a new fight.
"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," Eye said.
But the real legal wrangling isn't expected until the Record of Decision is released. That is when the project officially becomes eligible for federal funding.
Besides the expected legal fight, funding is the other major issue facing the road project. It is expected to take about $150 million to complete the project. Currently, that money is not in the state's comprehensive transportation plan. Supporters of the road, however, have argued that once the necessary approvals are granted that the project will have a good chance of being included in the state's next comprehensive transportation program, which legislators are expected to debate in the next five years.
During the November approval process, federal regulators said they found the wetlands route to be better than an alternative route that would have run the trafficway south of the Wakarusa River. Some of the reasons cited:
¢ The wetlands route does the best job of routing regional traffic around the city and taking some local traffic off streets such as 23rd and 31st streets and Haskell Avenue.
¢ Traffic on Haskell Avenue would increase significantly if the road is built south of the Wakarusa River.
¢ The wetlands route actually would 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 through the wetlands.
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 manmade 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. The project also includes noise walls to shelter the wetlands from the road.
Opponents, though, have been unimpressed. Michael Caron, executive director of 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.
"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.