Construction work begins on South Lawrence Trafficway

The trafficway is underway.

After nearly two decades of litigation and protests, construction work on the South Lawrence Trafficway officially began Tuesday, a spokeswoman with the Kansas Department of Transportation said.

Crews on Tuesday were working to clear vegetation just east of Haskell Avenue near 31st Street, Kim Qualls, a spokeswoman with KDOT, said. The work is part of the process of creating a new route for Haskell Avenue, which will be moved a few hundred feet to the east to make way for the trafficway.

“I think it has been a long time coming, is my first thought,” Lawrence Mayor Mike Dever said. “But I think the trafficway will mean even more now than it would have in the past. Moving people and moving traffic through Lawrence has become even more important as the city has grown.”

Construction work has not begun yet in the Baker Wetlands, which has been at the center of the controversy surrounding the road. Environmentalists and Native American groups have vigorously opposed construction of the road through the wetlands.

Qualls said she could not provide an estimate for when construction work would begin in the wetlands.

“It is tough to predict with the weather,” Qualls said. “But we will handle this like a normal project. We’ll be providing updates as we move along.”

The road — which will connect Interstate 70 northwest of the city with Kansas Highway 10 east of town — is expected to take three years to construct. Columbia, Mo.-based Emery Sapp and Sons is the lead contractor for the $129.8 million project.

Construction on the road has been halted since the mid-1990s when the western portion of the road was completed. But a July 2012 ruling in federal appeals court cleared the way for the final six miles of the project east of Iowa Street to be completed.

The project will include constructing about 300 acres of man-made wetlands to replace the about 55 acres of wetlands that will be taken for the project.

“I think we always are going to have people who will object to any disruption of the ecosystem out there,” Dever said. “We just have to be careful to minimize the disruption as best as we can. I know KDOT and the federal regulators are going to make that a priority.”

Such promises are doing little to console opponents of the roadway project. Mike Caron, executive director of Save the Wakarusa Wetlands, said several supporters of the wetlands will gather at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the wetlands to have a “memorial service” for the wetlands.

“I don’t think there is anybody who thinks they are going to stop the roadway at this point,” Caron said. “It is a tragedy, but there is not a whole lot we can do about it.”

Dever said he’s confident the roadway will provide a significant boost to the city’s economy. He said construction crews immediately will help spending totals in the city, but the biggest benefits will come once the road is completed in the fall of 2016.

“I think long term, the trafficway will be instrumental in connecting us to other municipalities and allowing us to be considered for economic development projects,” Dever said.