Supporters and opponents of the long-debated South Lawrence Trafficway project now have a date to circle on their calendars.
The Kansas Department of Transportation is scheduled to award a construction contract for the approximately $190 million project on Sept. 18. A few weeks later, crews should be moving dirt for the bypass project, which has been stalled amid litigation and environmental protests since the early 1990s.
"I would expect we'll see some work in mid-October or November," said Jonathan Marburger, project manager for KDOT.
In all likelihood, Marburger said, some of the first work will occur in the Baker Wetlands — the epicenter of the debate between roadway supporters and opponents. The project will require large amounts of gravel and fill dirt to be placed in the wetlands to create a solid roadbed. Marburger said crews will want that fill material to be in place early in order to give it plenty of time to settle.
Opponents have said the road project will damage the wetlands and disrespect the spiritual importance the wetlands have to Native American groups. The pending construction in the wetlands has created questions about possible protests as work begins.
"If there is a protest planned, I don't think I would want to discuss it in the newspaper now," said Michael Caron, a longtime leader of the Save the Wakarusa Wetlands organization. "I think it is very fair to say that it (construction) won't go unmarked."
Marburger said state officials aren't making any special plans to deal with possible protests or any other actions related to the longstanding controversy over the road project.
"We'll just work with our contractor and our public-involvement professionals to respond to whatever may come up," Marburger said. "If people want to do something to speak out, we are hopeful they will do it in a civil way."
If construction begins this fall, the road probably will be open by the fall of 2016, Marburger said.
Chuck Soules, director of public works for the city of Lawrence, said the bypass construction will be bigger than the recently-completed U.S. Highway 59 project and larger than the Kansas Turnpike bridge project.
"It is a very big project for this county," Soules said.
But officials are hopeful it won't create big traffic problems for motorists. The route travels across vacant ground rather than following the alignment of an existing road, which is expected to minimize the need to shut down city streets during construction. The new road will begin at Iowa Street, where the western portion of the SLT currently dead-ends, and go to the intersection of Kansas Highway 10 and Noria Road just east of the Lawrence city limits.
There will be a few instances where local streets will be shut down, particularly as portions of Haskell Avenue, Louisiana Street and 31st Street will be moved from their existing locations.
Haskell Avenue, beginning just north of the 31st Street intersection, will move about 1,000 feet to the east as it heads south toward the Wakarusa River. The portion of Louisiana Street south of 31st Street will move about a half mile to the west. Both relocations are to create more distance between the roads and the Baker Wetlands.
But Marburger said state officials will direct the winning contractor that both Haskell and Louisiana can't be shut down at the same time.
"There always will be a route on one of those two streets for traffic to get over the Wakarusa River," he said.
Marburger said timelines for when those streets may close will become clearer once a contractor is selected. The state will give the contractor significant authority to determine the phasing of the construction project.
The other major local street impact will be on 31st Street. The existing portion of 31st Street between Haskell and Louisiana will be removed and returned to wetlands. The new portion of 31st Street will move several hundred feet to the south and will run parallel to the SLT.
As part of the SLT contract, crews also will build an extension of 31st Street from Haskell to O'Connell Road. The two-lane road, which will include a hike-and-bike path, will mostly be paid for by the city, but will be bid by the state in order to take advantage of cost efficiencies related to the SLT project, Soules said.
The new portion of 31st Street will end at a roundabout at O'Connell Road where N 1300 Road currently intersects. A firm timeline for the 31st Street project hasn't been set, but Marburger said work on it probably wouldn't begin until 2015.
"That street will do a lot for people who live in southeast Lawrence and want to get to South Iowa Street," Soules said. "It will do a lot to relieve traffic on Haskell."
Once connected with the already-built western portion of the SLT, the trafficway extension will provide an unbroken route from Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence to Interstate 70 northwest of Lawrence.
City officials are predicting that the road will provide a significant boost to the community's economic development efforts, particularly efforts to attract tenants to the new industrial park that is being built on the former Farmland Industries property on Lawrence's eastern edge.
"I'm in a business where it is easy to overstate," City Manager David Corliss told city commissioners recently. "But I think it is very difficult to overstate the importance of this project to the community."