Leaders laud completion of SLT at ribbon-cutting; road to open to traffic on Wednesday

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks during a Kansas Department of Transportation ribbon-cutting celebration for the South Lawrence Trafficway, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.

It is time to drop the South Lawrence Trafficway’s moniker as a “road to nowhere,” a crowd of about 150 people were told at a ribbon-cutting for the long-debated and long-delayed bypass project.

“The road to nowhere? Not today,” U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts told the crowd. “No more jokes. The SLT is a road to a Kansas economic rainbow.”

A Friday morning ribbon-cutting ceremony near the east end of the bypass included many proclamations and predictions that the nearly $190 million road project, which has been more than 20 years in the making, would provide a boost to the region’s economy. A contingent of federal, state and local politicians addressed the crowd.

In addition to the congratulatory speeches, an announcement that motorists likely will care about also was made: The road will open to traffic on Wednesday morning. Although the ribbon was cut Friday, the road did not open after the ceremony.

“Let’s get to driving on this road,” Gov. Sam Brownback told the crowd.

Depending on how you want to define the beginning, discussions of a South Lawrence Trafficway project date back to the 1960s. Douglas County voters, though, gave their approval to the road via a bond issue in 1990. The western 9 miles of the trafficway opened in 1996. But the eastern 6 miles of the road became embroiled in a controversy and lawsuits over whether the road would do too much environmental and cultural damage to a wetland area and to adjacent Haskell Indian Nations University. The western end of the road abruptly ended at Iowa Street, while the eastern leg remained unbuilt.

Now completed, the road provides a connection from the Kansas Turnpike/Interstate 70 northwest of Lawrence to Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence.

Although the road project produced numerous protests from environmentalists, Native American groups and others throughout the years, Friday’s ceremony produced no protests or other visible signs of the road’s opponents. The controversy, however, wasn’t far from the minds of some.

“For the last three decades, the South Lawrence Trafficway became a symbol for a legal system and federal government out of control, most often needlessly, with great costs standing in the way of progress and common sense,” said Roberts, the Republican senator who secured several million dollars in federal funding for the project in the 2000s.

But most of the roughly hourlong ceremony on Friday focused on the scores of people — ranging from politicians to engineers — who worked on the road. Brownback told the crowd that the payoff will be greater economic success for the region. He said the trafficway will make it easier for the University of Kansas to truly become Kansas City’s primary university, and the road will play a major role in creating a high-tech corridor from Manhattan to Columbia, Mo.

“This is a key, key economic growth corridor for the state, and it is important to invest in it and keep the growth coming,” Brownback said.

Local and state officials celebrate the completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway during a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016. The officials are, from left, KDOT Acting Secretary Richard Carlson, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, FHWA Kansas Division Administrator Rick Backlund, Lawrence Mayor Mike Amyx, former Lawrence Chamber of Commerce CEO Gary Toebben, Douglas County Commissioner Jim Flory, ESS Executive Team Member Tim Paulson and HNTB Vice President Mike Hess.

Brownback said one of the next major state transportation projects should be to add two lanes to the western leg of the trafficway, which was built as a two-lane bypass in the 1990s. The eastern leg of the trafficway was built with four lanes.

Other details about the new road:

• The project came in slightly under budget at $183 million. The state had set aside about $192 million for the project. The $183 million figure included an approximately $130 million construction contract with Missouri-based contractor Emery Sapp & Sons, plus costs for engineering, design, inspection and mitigation efforts in the wetlands area.

• Costs to mitigate damages that the road caused to the Haskell and Baker Wetlands area west of Haskell Avenue totaled about $16 million. That included $4 million to build sound walls along that portion of the road, a $9 million endowment to Baker University to care for the original wetlands and the approximately 350 acres of manmade wetlands that were created as part of the project, and $1.6 million for a wetland Discovery Center that is operated by Baker University.

• The speed limit on the eastern leg of the trafficway will be 70 mph. The eastern leg of the road has three interchanges: Iowa Street, Haskell Avenue and the eastern terminus, which connects with K-10 about where Noria Road previously intersected with the highway.

Friday’s ceremony brought back many faces from the road’s history. Several former county commissioners were in the crowd, and former Lawrence Chamber of Commerce CEO Gary Toebben, now the leader of the Los Angeles chamber of commerce, attended and spoke at the event. Toebben was part of the small group in the 1980s that proposed the road project to KDOT. Toebben said the economic benefits of the road will be significant, but he said it also will create quality-of-life benefits through shorter drive times and more accessibility for the public.

“This road will give parents a few more minutes with their children at home each day,” Toebben said.

The economic benefits of the project, however, garnered most of the conversation. Lawrence Mayor Mike Amyx reminded the crowd that the state has projected the South Lawrence Trafficway project will produce more economic impact for the region than any other transportation project undertaken as part of the state’s comprehensive transportation program. State officials have estimated the road will create $3.7 billion in economic impact to the region over a multiyear period.

Roberts said attracting high-tech, bioscience and animal health companies to the region will be a major part of the economic success. He said the road will be a key cog in the region’s top high-tech corridor with Manhattan and the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility on one end and Columbia, Mo.’s animal health sciences industry on the other, with KU and its research facilities in the center of the corridor.

But he told members of the crowd that there is still more work to do to make that vision a reality.

“Let us continue to work together to ensure that this is a beginning of opportunity for the region, rather than the end of a long process,” Roberts said.