What has been debated and litigated for decades will come to be this week: Construction crews will begin building the South Lawrence Trafficway through the Baker Wetlands.
Construction work on the wetland portion of the $130 million roadway will begin by the end of this week, officials with the Kansas Department of Transportation announced Tuesday.
A federal permit will give crews 365 days to complete the work in the environmentally sensitive wetlands.
"All the necessary precautions will be taken at the worksite, given the environmental concerns of the area," said Kimberly Qualls, a spokeswoman with KDOT.
The damage the trafficway would do to the wetlands — which are between Haskell Avenue and Louisiana Street, along 31st Street — has been a major point of contention in lawsuits and protests that have delayed the road project by more than two decades.
But on Tuesday, one of the trafficway's chief opponents said he knew of no organized protests that were planned this week, although he said he wouldn't be surprised if a few individuals choose to do so. But Mike Caron, a member of the Wetlands Preservation Organization, said he was focusing his efforts on trying to get the state to make additional improvements — such as wildlife tunnels — that will make it easier for animals to cross the highway.
"Bad things happen in life, and you have to try to make the best of them," Caron said. "The old saw of making lemonade out of lemons applies here."
According to KDOT, construction crews will begin clearing a path for the road, and then will place layers of geosynthetic fabric and gravel to build a base for the road. The wetlands portion of the road project is expected to be completed by spring 2015. The entire trafficway project, which will connect the Kansas Turnpike west of Lawrence with Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence, is expected to be completed by Fall 2016.
Caron said he thinks once construction begins that many people will understand how destructive the roadway project will be to the wetland environment.
"It won't take long for the public to understand that it has a much larger impact on the wetlands than what they were led to believe," Caron said.
But supporters of the trafficway have said a mitigation plan will do much to limit the environmental impacts of the roadway. The project includes constructing about 300 acres of manmade wetlands to replace the approximately 55 acres of wetlands that will be taken for the project.
Supporters of the trafficway also have said the project will greatly improve traffic flow and will make the community more attractive for economic development.