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It is now full speed ahead for completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway.
And, opponents say, for the end of the Baker Wetlands as they know them.
A three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday came down decisively in favor of a route that will allow the long-debated bypass to be built through the Baker Wetlands.
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The strong wording of the ruling led leaders with the Kansas Department of Transportation to declare that any further legal battles involving the road are unlikely.
“I think it is important to point out that the court agreed with KDOT and FHWA’s (Federal Highway Administration) position in every instance,” said Josh Powers, a spokesman for KDOT. “We feel like it really does put an end to this matter from a legal standpoint.”
The ruling could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, or the full 10th Circuit Court of Appeals could be asked to hear the case. But Bob Eye, a lead attorney for the trafficway opponents, stopped well short of promising an appeal. He noted that even if his clients did pursue an appeal, the Supreme Court could decide not to hear the case.
“I feel like I have been kicked in the gut,” Eye said. “It is very disappointing. We are now, obviously, at a crucial point.”
The bypass project, which has been debated for more than two decades, would link Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence with the previously constructed western portion of the bypass, which ends at Iowa Street on a dead-end bridge that has become known as the “Bridge to Nowhere.”
In total, the bypass will take motorists from Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence to Interstate 70 west of Lawrence.
Powers said construction on the final six miles of the roadway is expected to begin in October 2013. He said the roadway is expected to be open to traffic by fall 2016.
“We really believe this project is going to serve as a cultural and economic corridor,” Powers said. “The project finally will connect Johnson County, Lawrence and Topeka.”
KDOT engineers had been reluctant to undertake many of the more advanced planning items needed to move the road project forward. Powers said the ruling now clears the way for full-scale road preparations to begin. He said KDOT leaders in the coming days will begin making formal offers to purchase properties along the roadway’s route.
The project — estimated to have a $150 million construction cost — already has won funding in the state’s comprehensive transportation program.
The legal issues surrounding the case were largely seen as the last remaining hurdle for the road project.
In January, opponents of the roadway, which included the Prairie Band Pottawatomie Indian tribe, the Sierra Club and several other environmental organizations, made arguments to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a lower court’s decision to allow the road to be built through the Baker Wetlands.
Opponents argued the environmental impact statement for the project ran afoul of the National Environmental Policy Act and Department of Transportation noise standards. Opponents also argued the road would negatively affect historic sites at Haskell Indian Nations University, which is adjacent to the Baker Wetlands, and that roadway builders had not properly considered a route that would have built the road south of the Wakarusa River.
The court ultimately rejected all the arguments. It called any errors made in the noise analysis of the project “harmless,” and said the south-of-the river route proposed by opponents of the trafficway actually would be more dangerous for drivers because of the number of curves that would have to be designed into the road.
“Finding no fatal flaws in the environmental impact statement or the prudence analysis, we affirm the judgment of the district court,” the judges wrote in the decision.
The ruling brought a variety of reactions from political leaders across the area.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts said the senator was “gratified by the decision as he has been a champion for the high-tech corridor for more than a decade.”
Lawrence Mayor Bob Schumm praised the ruling.
“We’re happy to hear it,” Schumm said. “It will mean a lot of economic prosperity for us in the future. It is a good day.”
Reaction from Douglas County Commission Chairman Mike Gaughan was more mixed.
“This debate is part of our community,” Gaughan said. “There are deeply held beliefs on both sides. People will continue to fight for their perspective and point of view. Practically speaking, if this goes forward, it is our job to make sure we protect the environment and ensure that it’s implemented in such a way that we can protect our historical heritage.”
Opponents on Tuesday largely were focused on what the ruling would mean to the Baker Wetlands.
“It is difficult because you see a resource so beautiful and so valuable, and they are now very clearly so much in jeopardy,” Eye said. “I think today’s ruling says that there are no wetlands anywhere that are really safe.”
KDOT leaders, though, are confident mitigation efforts will create new man-made wetlands that will become a robust, public nature area. The mitigation efforts will include the creation of more than 300 acres of new wetlands as well as bike paths, a camping grounds area, and cultural wetlands education center operated by Baker University.
“It is important to understand that we are impacting 56 acres of wetlands, but we are creating 304 acres of new wetlands,” Powers said. “The fact of the matter is this project will address both the transportation needs of Douglas County, Lawrence, Shawnee County and Johnson County, and it will, we believe, also enhance the wetlands.”
Eye said no court ruling will convince his clients of that.
“The idea that you can just pull new wetlands off the shelf and assume they will be a suitable substitute for what Mother Nature has endowed us with is a dubious prospect to say the least,” Eye said. “It illustrates the hubris that many people have in thinking they can override Mother Nature with human endeavors.
“We all need to be reminded that Mother Nature bats last.”
— Reporter Alex Garrison contributed to this report.