The Kansas Turnpike is putting off the planned closure of its East Lawrence interchange for another two weeks, part of a plan to improve chances of uninterrupted access for emergency services in North Lawrence.
The turnpike’s interchange — Exit 204, across North Third Street from the I-70 Business Center — now is scheduled to close April 5, two weeks later than the March 22 date that had been announced last week.
City officials requested the delay Tuesday morning, after realizing that they didn’t expect their own major construction job at North Second and Locust streets to restore two-way traffic on North Second until March 26.
City officials regarded such an overlap as unacceptable.
Without traffic able to head north using the Union Pacific underpass, emergency crews could be blocked from crossing the river to get into North Lawrence — either by an accident on the Kansas River bridge or the simple passing of a train through the neighborhood.
If the turnpike exit also were closed at the same time, emergency crews then could be limited in finding a way into North Lawrence.
“We understand the community’s interests,” said Rex Fleming, project engineer for the turnpike’s ongoing $130 million construction project at the northern edge of town, one expected to close the East Lawrence interchange for seven months for reconstruction. “We are going to push the limits of getting our interchange back open in time for winter, but we understand.”
The turnpike’s agreement to delay its own project doesn’t come without its own potential downside.
“I would hope that people would understand that if it doesn’t get done in time, it’s not our fault,” Fleming said.
City officials asked for the delay a few days after asking Fleming to consider another option: installing a temporary exit off the turnpike for emergency vehicles.
The temporary exit would be installed at East 1600 Road, about a mile east of North Seventh Street in North Lawrence and be available for use only by police cars, fire trucks, ambulances and other vehicles used by emergency services.
Chuck Soules, the city’s director of public works, said such an exit would be used only when all other avenues for service had been compromised:
• the East Lawrence interchange closed;
• the North Second and Locust intersection still closed to northbound traffic;
• the railroad tracks occupied by a train;
• the Kansas River bridge between downtown and North Lawrence blocked.
“We may or may not need it, but we’re prepared to get started on it if it’s deemed to be necessary,” Soules said.
Adding such a ramp likely would cost $40,000 to $50,000, Fleming said. And even then, he’s not sure it would work, given the already-disrupted traffic flow in the area because of replacement of the turnpike’s own Kansas River bridges and preparations for the interchange’s upcoming closure.
“If I can’t do it safely, that’s something we can’t do,” Fleming said.
So, for now, the city will need to make do with two more weeks to make progress on its own intersection. The extension improves the chances of opening a lane for northbound traffic at the underpass, Soules said.
That lane, of course, already had been expected to be open by now, and to have been handling traffic for the past two months. But bad weather and design changes have pushed the project back for months.
When the intersection project began, Lawrence city commissioners had agreed to spend about $28,000 on overtime wages for posting a crew from Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical in North Lawrence during peak traffic periods each weekday: two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. That was the amount expected back in July, when the crews were expected to be needed until the end of November.
Now those crews are expected to be in place through March 26.