News and notes from around town:
• Historic moments sometimes sneak up on you. A group of about eight of us saw one in April 1994 in the Douglas County Courthouse, but I’m not sure any of us recognized it as such.
The three Douglas County Commissioners — Louie McElhaney, Mark Buhler and Jim Chappell — emerged from a closed-door executive session at the courthouse. The three reporters who regularly covered the County Commission were sitting out in the meeting room gabbing, waiting for their return. (That’s the most amazing part of this story. There actually were three news reporters who routinely covered County Commission meetings: one each from the Journal-World and KLWN radio, and me with the Baldwin City weekly newspaper.)
Back then the South Lawrence Trafficway was a project that was on the move. The road had all the permits it needed to be built, and construction planning to build the road through the Haskell Wetlands was underway. Members of the Haskell community, though, began to raise concerns that many of their issues related to the road weren’t addressed in a previous environmental study.
When commissioners emerged from their executive session (This is all as I recall because although I have a lot of paper on my desk, I don’t have a notebook from a 1994 meeting. That’s at the house.) commissioners said they would agree to do something called a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.
Back then, that group of commissioners was very informal. I don’t even remember them going up to the podium where their seats were. There wasn’t anybody left in the crowd, so they just leaned up against the media table, and their motion was more like an explanation you would hear at the dinner table. The gist of it was, “we’ll do this study and it won’t really slow us down any because we’re going to be building the western half of the road first anyway. By the time the western half is done, the study will be done and we’ll pick up from there.”
All of about eight people — the three commissioners, three reporters and a couple or three county staff members — were there to hear it. We knew the story was significant, but I don’t think any of us knew that it would be another 14 years before the trafficway project would once again have all the required federal permits.
It was in May 2008 when the last federal permit was issued again, and that was a milestone for the project. Yesterday’s passing of the deadline to file for a review by the U.S. Supreme Court also was a milestone. The period, so to speak, has finally been placed at the end of the legal debate.
But you can’t help but wonder if there is another historic moment that will sneak up on us. The opposition for the roadway hasn’t lessened, and the sense I got yesterday is that trafficway opponents already are coming up with new strategies.
There are some smart, dedicated people in that group, and some of them shared a little bit of their new approach with me. In a nutshell it is this: Don’t try to convince state or federal transportation leaders to change their minds about this project. They realize the train has left the station on that one. In fact, I don’t even think they are going to try to directly change the minds of elected representatives such as county commissioners, state legislators or the governor.
Instead, I think the trafficway opponents will spend some time trying to convince another group to fight the project on their behalf. I don’t think the group has been determined yet, but it will be one that has some sway at the Statehouse. Maybe it will be the teacher’s union. Maybe it will be a taxpayer protection organization. But the point is, it will be somebody who either wants money or an addition tax cut from the Kansas Legislature. They’ll argue their cause is more worthy than the South Lawrence Trafficway, even though the money already has been allocated in the state’s comprehensive transportation plan.
“One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten is that a small grassroots organization isn’t going to be able to stop this project,” Millicent Pepion, a student leader at Haskell, told me. “You have to get a bigger, more influential group on your side. You have to get them to understand that here is $192 million that could be spent on your cause, but instead it is going to be spent on a road that goes through a sacred wetland.”
That likely will be the pitch that is made in the coming months. I don’t think anyone is predicting it will be easy for wetlands supporters to pull that off. There will be plenty of large, influential groups at the Statehouse that think spending $192 million on a project is exactly the right thing to do.
But what may be more interesting to watch is whether there will be $192 million to spend. Some wetland supporters believe the latest historic moment for this project may have been when lawmakers approved a series of tax cuts pushed by the Brownback administration.
“Frankly, some of the predictions I have read and heard about the impact of the state tax changes may very likely create a situation where the stream of revenue going into the state treasury is diminished significantly,” said Bob Eye, an attorney who represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
And Eye noted that historically one of the places state lawmakers have gone to make up past shortfalls has been the state’s transportation program. That may end up being one of the bigger issue for Lawrence in the next couple of legislative sessions: Will the state highway fund get raided?
In other words, the South Lawrence Trafficway still will be worth keeping an eye on. Regardless, though, when people ask me whether I think the road actually will get built, I tell them that it is closer than it has been in a long, long time.
The last time it was this close was 18 years ago, and then three county commissioners came and leaned against the media table.
• For people — especially business and land owners — who want to learn more about the design details of the South Lawrence Trafficway, there is a meeting coming up.
City and KDOT officials will host a meeting from 12:15 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. on Oct. 19 at City Hall. The brownbag lunch session will focus on potential impacts and the timing of SLT construction near the 31st and Haskell area and the East Hills Business Park area.
SLT general map ( .PDF )
If you remember, there will be major changes, especially in the 31st and Haskell area. Large portions of Haskell Avenue will be moved east from its current location. The Oct. 19 meeting will provide much more specifics about what areas the project will impact.
• Normally, I would insert a funny segue here (readers of this column may be surprised to find that they are funny) but I have found the South Lawrence Trafficway kind of causes people to lose their sense of humor.
So, I’ll just tell you that the city of Lawrence has completed an interesting project related to its cemeteries.
The city is now offering an interactive, searchable, online map of all burials in the Oak Hill, Memorial Park and Maple Grove cemeteries.
The map will provide the name, burial date, cemetery section and specific lot where the deceased is buried. The records are from present day all the way back to December 1832.
The city plans to update the map monthly. The map can be found at the city’s web site at lawks.us/cemetery-map.