After decades of debate and litigation, it appears the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway finally has cleared its last major hurdle.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that will allow the bypass to be built on a route just south of the existing 31st Street. Although litigation over the ecological and cultural impact of building the SLT through the wetlands area had stalled construction for many years, the court’s strongly worded opinion makes further court appeals unlikely.
Opponents could appeal the decision to either the full 10th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court, but representatives of the Kansas Department of Transportation say those courts aren’t likely to hear the case because the three-judge panel agreed with highway officials on every count, leaving little grounds for an appeal. Funding to build the road is in place, and KDOT officials say they plan to start construction on the six-mile, four-lane eastern leg by fall of 2013. If all goes as planned, the road could be open for traffic by fall 2016.
Barring further court action, this could be the beginning of the end for a long and expensive chapter in Lawrence and Douglas County history. An SLT ballot question that went to voters in 1990 estimated the cost of building a two-lane bypass from the Kansas Turnpike west of Lawrence to Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence at about $42 million. The state estimated that building a four-lane highway at that time would cost about $50.5 million. Now, KDOT officials estimate it will cost $150 million to build just the eastern leg of the SLT.
The bitter battle between proponents and opponents of the SLT also has been costly to the community. Although opponents of the road will be disappointed with Tuesday’s ruling, perhaps they will draw some satisfaction from the extensive wetland mitigation and recreation measures now included in the SLT blueprint.
The community owes its thanks to local, state and federal officials who have continued to pursue plans to build this important transportation link, which will relieve traffic on 23rd Street and complete the southern loop around Lawrence. The eastern leg of the trafficway, which will have interchanges at Iowa Street, Haskell Avenue and Noria Road, will provide key access for businesses at East Hills Business Park and the former Farmland Industries property now being developed by the city. The planned addition of an interchange on 15th Street, on the SLT’s western leg, will provide an important access point to western Lawrence enterprises. The road will be a huge boon for the city’s economic development efforts.
The emotion being felt by many Lawrence leaders today may be less a celebration than a sigh of relief. It’s been a long and unpleasant chapter. Now it’s time to turn the page.