The legal battle will continue to determine whether the South Lawrence Trafficway will be built through a piece of wetlands.
On Thursday, a group of environmental organizations and Haskell Indian Nations University students announced that they would appeal a federal court ruling that upheld the decision to align the new four-lane highway through a portion of the Baker Wetlands.
That appeal will be filed with the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver within the next few days, said Bob Eye, the attorney representing the opponents.
“There was really no hesitation by any parties on our side of the case about taking up an appeal,” Eye said. “Our clients made a commitment early on to try to protect the wetlands. And, that didn’t change because the court didn’t agree with our perspective.”
Joe Erskine, deputy secretary of transportation for the Kansas Department of Transportation, said the state agency wasn’t surprised by the group’s appeal.
In early November, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil issued a 59-page decision that affirmed the process used by the Federal Highway Administration to align an extension of the South Lawrence Trafficway along what would be 32nd Street.
The groups opposing construction of the road in the wetlands would like to see the road run south of the Baker Wetlands. More than two years ago, they filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in an attempt to preserve the roughly 60 acres of wetlands the trafficway would consume.
The new four-lane highway would extend the existing South Lawrence Trafficway from U.S. Highway 59 — Iowa Street in the city limits — seven miles east to Kansas Highway 10. The route selected by the Federal Highway Administration would run through the northern part of the Baker Wetlands. As part of the project, the Kansas Department of Transportation has agreed to build 300 acres of new wetlands.
The appeal, which should take about 18 months, isn’t expected to delay construction of the highway. KDOT is about halfway through the design plans and survey work. State money to build the $188 million South Lawrence Trafficway won’t become available until 2013.
If the appeal process were to last longer than expected, Erskine said, KDOT has agreed to hold off construction until the court process is finished.
In its announcement on Thursday, the plaintiffs noted the wetlands have ecological, educational, cultural, recreational and spiritual benefits to the community, which would be lost if a highway were constructed. The roadway would impact all of the wetlands, not just the acres KDOT would use for right-of-way, Eye said.
Plaintiffs in the upcoming lawsuit include the Sierra Club, the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe, Jayhawk Audubon Society, Wetlands Protection Organization, Save the Wakaursa Wetlands Inc., KU Environs and EcoJustice.
In her ruling, Vratil said the Federal Highway Administration in its environmental impact statement “properly considered” the impacts of traffic and safety, flooding and increased development as well as the effect the alignment would have on Haskell Farm.
However, Vratil said the federal agency incorrectly estimated that a 32nd Street alignment would cost less than a route that would run farther south and align with what is known as 42nd Street. Omitted from its estimate were the cost of creating 300 acres of new wetlands, moving 31st Street, building the Wetland and Cultural Center and constructing hiking and biking trails.
She also ruled that the agency’s noise study didn’t follow federal requirements.
Both issues will be addressed in the opponents’ appeal, Eye said.