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KDOT interested in expanding western leg of SLT to four lanes; update on Ninth and N.H. and possible downtown drug store
It is like my wife always says: You have to strike while the iron is hot. (This is one of the reasons why I always hide when my wife has a hot iron in her hand.) However you interpret that saying, it appears the Kansas Department of Transportation is taking it to heart when it comes to the South Lawrence Trafficway.
State officials are beginning the process to hire a consulting firm that will study the feasibility of expanding the western leg of the South Lawrence Traffiway to four lanes. A consultant could be hired this summer, and the study could be completed about 18 months later.
The trafficway always has been planned to be a four-lane highway, but when the western leg of the trafficway was built in the 1990s, traffic demand only called for two lanes at the time.
After a couple of decades of lawsuits and protests, the eastern leg of the trafficway is now under construction. When it is completed in 2016, it will be a four-lane freeway. So, for that reason alone, it makes sense that KDOT is interested in planning for four lanes on the western portion of the bypass.
But it also makes sense for another reason: The South Lawrence Trafficway is on a roll. Ever since the project won a key federal ruling at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver in July 2012, the project has had a lot of blue skies. The Legislature easily included the needed funding for the project in the state's transportation plan. Then bids for the $130 million project came in about $20 million lower than what engineers had estimated.
Perhaps the most surprising development, though, is that within the last several weeks, roadwork has begun in the Wakarusa Wetlands, and environmentalists, American Indian groups and others haven't done anything to disrupt it. If you would have told me five years ago that there would be bulldozers in the wetlands and there wouldn't be a mass protest on the site, I wouldn't have believed you. But that hasn't materialized. (I am worried, however, that a group of KDOT engineers now wants to pummel me with slide rules for tempting fate.)
As for the proposed study, the Metropolitan Planning Organization — a city-county board that oversees transportation planning — has been asked by KDOT to put the study on its list of future transportation projects. By putting the study on the list, it becomes eligible to receive state and federal funding. The MPO is scheduled to take action on the request at its April 17 meeting. In the meantime, the MPO is taking public comment on the request and the entire list of projects on its Transportation Improvement Plan through April 13. Click here for more details on how to submit comments.
If placed on the plan, the state will fund the full cost of the study, KDOT officials have indicated. But Kim Qualls, a spokeswoman with KDOT, notes that there is no state money to actually fund the construction of the two additional lanes. Such funding likely would have to come from a future state comprehensive transportation plan. The current plan expires in 2020.
This study, though, will get the process moving. Local leaders ought to be particularly interested in one part of the study: possible modifications to existing intersections. The western leg of the trafficway has two at-grade intersections: one at basically Kasold extended and the other near the YSI sports complex and Lawrence Rotary Arboretum. The one near YSI and the arboretum has been particularly dangerous. Last summer, a bicyclist trying to cross the freeway at the intersection was killed when struck by a motorist. Other serious accidents have occurred at the site as well.
But whenever the idea of making an improvement to the intersection comes up at City Hall, cost issues seem to squash the discussion before it ever really gets started. An intersection improvement as part of a four-lane expansion likely would be largely funded by the state, and may represent the best hope for the intersection. Of course, it also will take a number of years for any such project to materialize.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Believe your eyes, not the calendar. That big wooden thing you ran into at Ninth and New Hampshire streets today was a barricade. The northbound lane of New Hampshire Street from Ninth Street to the Lawrence Arts Center is still closed.
Back in January, city commissioners agreed to close the portion of New Hampshire Street until March 31 to accommodate work on the new multistory Marriott hotel at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire.
Well, March 31 is several days in our rear view mirror, and the barricades are still up. City officials recently have received a request from the hotel development group, which is led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor, to allow the barricades to remain up through Dec. 31 or the end of the project, whichever comes first.
The request doesn't really get into any details about why the extra time is needed, although the project clearly has suffered some weather delays. The southbound lane of traffic would remain open, and the northbound lane could occasionally be opened to traffic to accommodate some events at the Arts Center.
We'll see how commissioners react to the request. If the closure is still in place by September, it could affect bus traffic related to the city's downtown bus shuttle for Kansas University football games. The commission's agenda for Tuesday hasn't yet been released, but I've been told the issue will be on Tuesday's agenda.
• The same development group also has plans for a new multistory apartment and office building at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hamsphire streets. Work on that building is expected to begin later this year as work on the hotel project begins to wind down.
But the building project that I've been most interested in hearing an update on is a proposal to build a seven-story apartment building that would have a drugstore on the ground floor. As we reported in October, Compton wants to build that project at 11th and Massachusetts — just north of the Douglas County Courthouse — on what is known as the Allen Press property.
Back in October, Compton believed he was just a few weeks away from having a signed contract with a national drug store retailer. (He's never confirmed the company, but CVS and Walgreens are the two most frequently mentioned, and I would bet on CVS.) But those few weeks have come and gone, and an announcement still hasn't been made.
I talked with Compton a couple of weeks ago, and he said he was still waiting to hear word from the company. What has caused the delay isn't quite clear, although national retailers can be a fickle bunch, and I'm sure CVS is monitoring how its two existing stores in Lawrence have been performing.
If the idea of a national chain doesn't pan out for the location, it will be interesting to see what happens to the project. I've heard some credible talk that the idea of a locally run drug store at the site is feasible. The concept worked for a long time, with Round Corner Drug being the last to close in 2009. Since that time, downtown has added quite a few new living units that could use drug store services.
The momentum to add more apartments in downtown continues to be strong. When I briefly talked to Compton, he seemed as committed as ever to building the project at 11th and Mass.