If the South Lawrence Trafficway is to be built along an approved alignment through the Baker Wetlands, some of the resulting pavement would need to cross a 20-acre patch of property owned by Kansas University.
And a coalition of project opponents is pushing the university to put the brakes on the highway plan, or at least steer the project south of the Wakarusa River.
“The road can be stopped if KU has the mindset to do it,” said Mike Caron, executive director of Save the Wakarusa Wetlands Inc., one of several groups suing the Kansas Department of Transportation to prevent the trafficway from crossing the Baker Wetlands.
Caron and representatives from other groups — KU Environs, KU EcoJustice, KU Indigenous Nations Studies Student Association and the Wetlands Preservation Organization at Haskell Indian Nations University — gathered Monday afternoon in front of KU’s Strong Hall to rally support for their cause and gather signatures asking the KU administration to block the state’s trafficway plan.
While KU leaders acknowledged the groups’ ability to demonstrate about a cause they support, they haven’t sought to stand in the way of the estimated $144 million highway project. The project’s route has been approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and now awaits a decision on the opponents’ lawsuit in federal court.
Like any property owner with land along the proposed trafficway route, KU had been consulted as the corps reviewed the project, said Lynn Bretz, a KU spokeswoman.
KU’s land southwest of 31st Street and Haskell Avenue came into the university’s possession in the 1950s, and was to be used for “the public good, or public benefit,” she said. The site has been used intermittently for biological research.
Roger Boyd, director of natural areas for Baker University, said he had been managing the property since 1982.
“We don’t have the authority to sell or give the land to anybody,” Bretz said Monday. “Our position has been fairly consistent over the years: We’re not going to give the land to the state department of transportation. (KDOT) would need to obtain it through the process of eminent domain, which could likely happen. …
“We recognize the interests of all the parties. There is a balance of issues here: transportation needs and, of course, environmental and some other concerns. And we certainly respect the right of the group to demonstrate today.”
Kevin Gremmelsbacher, a KU senior who signed his name to a petition Monday, wouldn’t mind seeing the trafficway rerouted away from the wetlands.
“It’s very important,” he said. “Why should you damage the environment when you don’t have to?”