On the street
I bet that it’s at least five years away. I think the population here has a difficult task in balancing growth and what is beneficial for the environment, and I think a lot of people here are going to fight it until the very end.
For the first time in more than a decade, supporters of the South Lawrence Trafficway have all the necessary federal permits to build the road through the Baker Wetlands.
And once again, opponents of the nearly 25-year old project have all they need to head back to court.
The Kansas Department of Transportation announced Tuesday that the Federal Highway Administration has issued a key permit allowing the road to be built along a 32nd Street route, which runs through the northern part of the Baker Wetlands.
"This is another key step toward the completion of the trafficway," Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson said of the project, which would connect Interstate 70 west of Lawrence with Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence.
The permit - called a Record of Decision - brought a promise of a new lawsuit from leaders of the Save the Wakarusa Wetlands organization.
"We certainly will go to court," said Michael Caron, executive director of the wetlands group. "I have no doubt that the road will never be built there."
The Federal Highway Administration had approved preliminary permits that found the 32nd Street route did the least amount of environmental harm to the wetlands. Opponents of the project have disputed that finding, saying a route south of the Wakarusa River would do less environmental harm.
The new permit is significant, though. It marks the first time since 1994 that roadway builders have had the necessary federal permits to build the road through the wetlands. It was 1994 when county commissioners suspended the wetlands portion of the project to allow for a new study reviewing the environmental impacts the road would have on adjacent Haskell Indian Nations University and the wetlands. Ever since, the project has been tied up in lawsuits and federal bureaucracy.
Technically, the permit would allow road builders to begin construction. Work, though, is not likely to happen soon. Funding for the road remains a major issue.
It is estimated that about $150 million in funding is needed to complete the project. State and federal funding is expected to be sought, but Johnson said new money may not develop until 2010.
State legislators next year are expected to begin discussions about a new multiyear comprehensive transportation plan. The state's current plan - which funded $5.5 billion in construction projects - is set to expire in 2009.
The project, however, does have about $1.5 million in federal funding that would allow small-scale work to begin. The money - secured by U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts - could be used to begin work to create a new wetlands area to replace the approximately 58 acres of wetlands disturbed by the project.
Joe Erskine, deputy secretary of transportation for KDOT, said removing some plants from the wetlands to be transferred to a planned 247-acre wetlands site west of Louisiana Street is a possibility. But Erskine said no major excavation work is planned in the wetlands until funding and possible litigation matters are resolved.
Johnson said he believes both the funding issues and the litigation matters will be resolved in favor of the road project.
"I think everybody feels pretty good about what has been done and the attention that has been paid to all the details," Johnson said. "We're pretty confident that we'll prevail in litigation."
The last time the project was in court - in the late 1990s - the county and other SLT supporters lost. But this time a key fact has changed. In the 1990s lawsuit, roadway supporters were arguing that they did not need the federal permit to proceed with the project. A federal judge rejected that argument. This time, the county and KDOT have the needed permit, and it will be up to opponents to show that the permit was incorrectly issued.
Caron - who said his group still has the services of noted environmental attorney Bob Eye - said he's more confident than ever that a court will stop the road project. He said unlike in the 1990s, the city now has clear plans to grow south of the Wakarusa River. He said building a bypass project north of the Wakarusa River makes no sense.
"I think this road is far more outrageous than it was in the '90s even," Caron said. "Any court is going to see that this is not what you do to a wetland."
Project opponents have 180 days to file a lawsuit.