• It looks like a new $17 million interchange for Bob Billings Parkway and the South Lawrence Trafficway actually will be built in the near future.
Funding for the project had been a big question mark for months. The Kansas Department of Transportation at one point suggested it would need to make portions of the SLT a toll road in order to pay for the project. A public survey, however, found the public wasn’t crazy about the idea of tolls, and changing the SLT project to a toll road could have caused the project to reopen a key environmental study. (There may have needed to be a study about whether Agnus T. Frog would need to pay the toll. That’s a joke for the old timers.)
The state at another point had tied the future of the interchange to winning a federal grant through the stimulus program. But the project wasn’t selected for funding.
But on Tuesday, KDOT leaders will present plans for the state to pay for most of the project through its comprehensive transportation program. Construction would begin in 2014.
The state is seeking $2 million in local funding from the city and the county to pay for some of the upgraded features of the interchange. As currently designed, the project will be a diamond interchange, similar to the one at Sixth Street and the SLT. But this interchange also would include sidewalks and bike lanes on both sides of the bridge. The interchange also will accommodate the hike and bike path that runs along the South Lawrence Trafficway.
City commissioners will decide later this summer whether the city can afford to provide local funding for the project. But here is betting that they will. (County funding will be interesting to watch. The county’s budget, I believe, will be quite a bit tighter than the city’s in 2013.) Although some neighbors along Bob Billings Parkway are concerned about the increased traffic an interchange would bring, there seem to be far more people in the community who see the interchange as a potential economic boon. The interchange truly will create a new gateway into Kansas University. Motorists coming from the west now will have a straight shot into the university.
KDOT hopes to begin buying right-of-way for the project later this year. It also will be interesting to watch what private land transactions happen west of this interchange site. Once Lawrence’s housing market picks up again, I suspect the area west of the interchange will become a major growth area. Simply put, this interchange may do more to change traffic patterns in Lawrence than any project has in quite some time.
• Let’s see, is there another project that would change traffic patterns much in Lawrence. What’s that project east of Iowa Street that gets talked about occasionally? That’s right, the uncompleted leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway. (You’ll have to excuse my forgetfulness. The very first article I wrote as a journalist in Douglas County was about a 1992 public hearing that was slated to be the last meeting needed before the road could be completed.)
We’re all still waiting for a ruling from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on whether the project has the proper permits to build the road through the Baker Wetlands between Haskell and Louisiana. That ruling will come when it will come, but KDOT is intent on being ready to start construction, if the state ends up on the winning side of the argument.
At Tuesday’s meeting, city commissioners actually will be asked to sign some documents that clear the way for KDOT to undertake construction in the city limits — once the lawsuit is resolved. In fact, the documents really will clear the way for two road projects — the four-lane South Lawrence Trafficway and a newly constructed 31st Street.
The SLT plans long have included a rebuilding and relocation of the stretch of 31st Street that runs through wetlands. (The road will move south, farther from the Haskell campus.) But city and county leaders also have developed plans to extend 31st Street east to O’Connell Road. KDOT is now recommending the extension of 31st Street be bid by the state as part of the overall SLT project. The city, and perhaps the county, will still have to pay for the road, but KDOT is confident the bids will come in cheaper for the extension if it is part of a larger construction project. That likely means the city will need to figure out how to pay for that extension — once estimated at about $5 million — by 2014, which is when the state hopes to be under construction on the SLT.
The documents city commissioners will review Tuesday do provide a good summary of several of the major components of the SLT construction project. If you have had a hard time keeping up — I don’t know why you would — here’s a look:
— The SLT will be a four-lane, divided highway.
— An interchange near Noria Road will allow access to 23rd Street, which will no longer be a state highway and will become the maintenance responsibility of the city.
— An interchange will be constructed at Haskell Avenue, which will be relocated to the east of its current route. Haskell — also known as East 1500 Road outside the city limits — will travel under the new SLT and will re-emerge on its current alignment before it crosses the Wakarusa River.
— Louisiana Street will be relocated a half-mile west of its current alignment. It, too, will continue south — as East 1400 Road — and will return to its current alignment before it crosses the Wakarusa River.
— The SLT will bridge over O’Connell Road in eastern Lawrence, and there will be no access to the SLT from O’Connell.
— 317 acres of man-made wetland will be built to replace the 57.6 acres of the Baker Wetlands that will be lost to the road construction.
— A 10,000-square-foot cultural/wetland center will be built by the state and run by Baker University near the new 31st and Louisiana intersection.
— A 10-foot-wide hike and bike trail will connect Iowa Street to O’Connell Road with connections to Haskell Avenue, the wetland center, Mary’s Lake, and Broken Arrow Park.
— Noise walls will be constructed along the portion of the project that runs through the wetlands.
• Not all of Tuesday’s city commission meeting will be devoted to the controversial South Lawrence Trafficway project. Commissioners also will have an agenda topic that rarely ever creates controversy — downtown development. (Wait a second, I might be wrong on that, too.)
This downtown development proposal actually will be different from most. As we previously have reported, a development group that has bought the property surrounding Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence hopes to build a boardwalk style retail, office and residential development along the Kansas River levee.
But the development group — which includes the owners of Johnny’s, local businessman Jon Davis and several other partners — contend the area needs to officially be considered a part of downtown. The designation is about much more than marketing. It would allow the project to be built with zoning codes, parking codes and design guidelines that currently are only available to downtown properties.
The proposal got a mixed reception from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission. It is too long to explain here but some items won a positive recommendation from the Planning Commission while another key item did not, in part because one commissioner was late to the meeting. (If city commissioners were hoping for a clear recommendation on this project, they may have been better served consulting their Ouija board.)
Downtown Lawrence merchants also seemed mixed on the plan. A key concern seems to be that the developers are looking for one exception to the downtown standards. They want the ability to have retail stores of up to 50,000 square feet in the development. In downtown, retail buildings are limited to a footprint of 25,000 square feet.
Exactly what would occupy a 50,000 square foot retail building in North Lawrence probably will go a long way in determining whether people support the exception. If it is a grocery store, North Lawrence residents would fall all over themselves in support of it. If it is a movie theater, as has been mentioned, that probably would get wide support. If it is a big box retailer, well, some would support it but some downtown merchants — I’ve heard — would have concerns.
I hope to check in with the developers and some downtown leaders prior to Tuesday’s meeting.