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Archive for Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Federal lawsuit under way in South Lawrence Trafficway plans

April 21, 2009

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There’s activity again on completing the South Lawrence Trafficway bypass project.

But some of the activity is familiar — a federal lawsuit.

Opponents of plans to build the bypass project through the Baker Wetlands filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in October seeking to block construction of the road, which they contend will severely damage the wetlands.

The lawsuit is largely in its preliminary stages, said Mike Caron, executive director of the Save the Wakarusa Wetlands, which is one of the plaintiffs in the suit. Hearings in the case, he said, may heat up this summer.

Possibilities of a settlement seem remote.

“Supporters of the 32nd Street (wetland route) need to understand that this is not going to happen the way they want it to,” Caron said.

But supporters of the wetland route, which would run the trafficway just south of where 31st Street currently goes through the wetlands, have more optimism than in past years.

That’s because in May, the project, which would connect Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence with the Kansas Turnpike West of Lawrence, received a key permit from the Federal Highway Administration.

The federal agency found that the 32nd Street route would do the least amount of environmental harm to the wetlands. Caron and others have disputed that finding, saying a route south of the Wakarusa River would do less environmental harm.

The new permit was significant because it marks the first time since 1994 that roadway builders have had all the necessary federal permits to build the road through the wetlands. It was 1994 when Douglas County commissioners suspended the wetlands portion of the project to allow for a new study reviewing the environmental impact the road would have on adjacent Haskell Indian Nations University and the wetlands. Ever since, the project has either been tied up in lawsuits or federal bureaucracy.

But now there are some signs of actual work on the ground occurring on the project. Survey crews for the Kansas Department of Transportation have been out pinpointing the exact pieces of right-of-way that will be needed to complete the remaining five-mile stretch of road.

Work is also under way to create a new wetland area next to the existing Baker Wetlands. The new wetland area would be part of a mitigation plan to replace any natural wetlands lost to the construction of the road.

Crews have built swales just west of the Baker Wetlands site in preparation of spreading a variety of seeds.

“There are a lot of skeptics who believe the mitigation will not work, so we’re demonstrating that it will,” said Roger Boyd, Baker University’s director of natural areas. “And it does take some time, so that is to our advantage.”

That’s because even if roadway supporters are successful in the lawsuit, the project still has political hurdles to cross. About $140 million dollars are needed to complete construction of the road.

KDOT leaders said they expect the project to be considered as part of the state’s next comprehensive transportation program. But when that happens and whether the road project is included in the plan aren’t sure bets.

“It may be next year or 10 years from now,” said Corky Armstrong, engineering manager for the department’s State Road Office. “It’s all up to the Legislature.”

Transportation Reporter Mark Fagan contributed to this story.

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