The Kansas Department of Transportation has decided against making any portion of the South Lawrence Trafficway a toll road, the agency announced Thursday.
KDOT leaders were exploring making the SLT — which if completed will connect Interstate 70 west of Lawrence with Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence — a toll road.
But KDOT said a survey of area motorists found that even a minimal toll would have reduced the number of motorists who would have used the bypass. In fact, KDOT determined that the number of users of the SLT would drop to the point that a new environmental impact statement would be required for the western half of the trafficway — which is scheduled to begin construction in fall 2013, if the state prevails in a lawsuit regarding the route of the road through the Baker Wetlands.
“Reopening the EIS would require that the scheduled letting date in the fall of 2013 be put on hold indefinitely, resulting in significant delay to the project and substantial increases in construction costs,” said Acting KDOT Secretary Barb Rankin. “KDOT is committed to delivering this project on time and on budget.”
KDOT had proposed using toll money to fund an interchange for the SLT where it intersects with Bob Billings Parkway. KDOT leaders said they will work with Douglas County and the city of Lawrence to develop an alternate funding package for that interchange. But Josh Powers, a spokesman for KDOT said that local and state officials haven’t yet come up with ideas on how to fund the interchange, which has an estimated price tag of $17 million. Powers confirmed that KDOT learned in mid-December that the project was not selected for a federal grant program that would have paid for much of the project.
“But we do think it would be an important interchange,” Powers said. “That is the direction growth is heading, and it is absolutely a gateway area.”
The KDOT survey did show some support for tolls. In fact, one question found that 67 percent of respondents would be willing to pay a toll to use the SLT, if the toll were the same as charged by the Kansas Turnpike. Another question found 71 percent would be willing to pay a toll of around 50 cents. But the survey also found that without the toll 86 percent of respondents would have used the trafficway.
Powers said the potential reduction in motorists using the SLT was a key consideration in not moving forward. One of the justifications for the $150 million bypass project is to reduce the amount of traffic on 23rd and 31st streets in Lawrence. If a toll made it more likely that motorists would remain on the local streets, a legal argument could be made that the Environmental Impact Statement for the project would have to be reopened.
“We have to be very sensitive to that,” Powers said.
Currently the western half of the project — the portion from Iowa Street to the Lecompton interchange on the Kansas Turnpike — is built. But the eastern half of the project is unbuilt and the subject of a federal lawsuit. Environmentalists and Native American tribes have filed a lawsuit arguing the federal government erred in issuing permits to allow the road to be built through the Baker Wetlands. The permit process has been upheld by a federal court, but the case currently is on appeal at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Oral arguments in that case are scheduled for mid-January.