Douglas County Commission looks to keep Wakarusa Drive extension on ‘front burner’

This concept from fall 2015 shows an interchange connecting Wakarusa Drive to Kansas Highway 10.

As the South Lawrence Trafficway is set for completion this fall, Douglas County commissioners are beginning to think more about another southern road project: a plan to extend Wakarusa Drive south of the city limits and near a popular youth sports complex.

Residents and businesses south of Lawrence have expressed concerns about how proposed changes to the Kasold Drive and SLT interchange will affect their travels. County commissioners and city commissioners were recently briefed on KDOT’s plans to limit that interchange to right in and right out movements. Shortly after that briefing county commissioners discussed how to keep “on the front burner” their longer-term solution for access to south Lawrence and southwest Douglas County.

At Wednesday’s Douglas County Commission meeting, Commissioner Nancy Thellman said it was clear that the city and county commissions needed to “start thinking” about a Wakarusa Drive expansion project. KDOT officials already have planned to build a Wakarusa Drive interchange on the South Lawrence Trafficway, when the SLT is eventually expanded to four lanes. When that expansion would take place — or how it would be funded — hasn’t been determined. Local officials, though, would be responsible for extending Wakarusa Drive to County Route 458 south of Lawrence.

The project also would provide a benefit to the city of Lawrence, as the new road would provide greater access to the city’s Youth Sports Complex, which houses a number of soccer, baseball, football and other fields. The current at-grade intersection leading to the park has been the site of multiple serious accidents.

With the expense of that proposed Wakarusa Drive extension, which County Public Works Director Keith Browning estimates would cost $8 million, it was important that the county and city start planning and keeping the topic on the minds of KDOT officials, Thellman said.

While a timeline for a Wakarusa interchange on the SLT is still uncertain, it could happen sooner than once thought.

In a report to county commissioners last week, Browning wrote that the new K-10/Wakarusa Drive interchange could be constructed before the western leg of the SLT is expanded to four lanes.

In response to Thellman’s comments Wednesday, Browning said the best way to signal to KDOT that the city and county were serious about the interchange and extension was for both local governing bodies to put the Wakarusa Drive extension on their capital improvement project lists.

Browning said the county has not yet taken that step, although there had been internal talks about how the project, which would include a bridge over the Wakarusa River, would affect other county capital improvement projects.

“It would have an effect on other projects, but it could be done,” he said.

A big question would be how the city and county would share in the cost of the project, Browning said.

Thellman said it would be a good time to start discussions with the city because the city is now going through its own capital improvement project review.