After more than two decades of argument, SLT to open; reflections on the fight that enveloped the community

The South Lawrence Trafficway near the Haskell Avenue interchange is pictured on Monday, Oct. 31, 2016.

The South Lawrence Trafficway surely must be the most debated stretch of concrete in Douglas County’s history.

Yes, there are some projects that perhaps could match it in ferocity: construction of the Clinton Lake Dam in the 1970s and plans to build a downtown mall in the 1980s come to mind. But on the menu of Douglas County donnybrooks, those were just appetizers. The South Lawrence Trafficway ended up being the all-you-can-eat buffet.

It is not hyperbole to say the South Lawrence Trafficway was an active argument in Douglas County for nearly 25 years.

On Friday morning, state and local officials conducted a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the completion of the eastern — and final — leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway bypass project. But just to drive home the point that delay is part of its DNA, the road won’t open for traffic until Wednesday.

The road project is simple enough on a map. It is a highway that connects the Kansas Turnpike — U.S. Interstate 70 — northwest of Lawrence with the existing portion of Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence. When it opens for traffic, the entire SLT will be designated as K-10 Highway.

But when you venture off the map, the project becomes more complicated. A calendar is a good illustration of how complicated. The western leg of the highway has been completed since 1996. For nearly two decades, a bridge dubbed “The Bridge to Nowhere” spanned Iowa Street. On the west side of the bridge there was a road. On the east side, there was just an argument of a road.

About a mile and half to the east of that bridge was the epicenter of the argument. It is an area commonly known as the Haskell and Baker Wetlands. The project became entangled in a pair of federal lawsuits over whether the road would improperly damage the environmental and cultural significance of the wetlands.

The legal arguments have been over for four years now. Nearly $200 million worth of construction has been the main activity over the last several years. When it opens for traffic, the SLT is expected to shorten east-west drive times in Lawrence and become a major cog in the regional transportation system, especially for motorists traveling between Topeka and Johnson County.

Someday, the majority of Douglas County residents may not think of the South Lawrence Trafficway as anything more than an ordinary bypass, a shortcut to Wal-Mart. But for a bit longer there will be some residents who remember that the trafficway once was the symbol for everything wrong about Lawrence. Proponents of the road pointed to it as a symbol of how Lawrence argues about everything and accomplishes too little. Opponents of the road pointed to it as a symbol of how the community too easily sells it values for growth and development.

As the trafficway nears its opening, here’s a look at the thoughts and reflections of four people who often were near the center of the SLT debate.

The South Lawrence Trafficway became a part of Mark Buhler’s life when he decided to run for a seat on the Douglas County Commission. Buhler shared the 1990 ballot with a $4 million bond issue to build the SLT project. Both the road and Buhler won in 1990.

State and county engineers began designing the road. Certainly the road project hadn’t been without controversy to that point. All the way back in the mid-1980s, a group had formed to oppose the idea of the road because of concerns about the wetlands. The group even ran a write-in campaign for a fictional, amphibious candidate named Agnes T. Frog against Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Hiebert in the 1986 election.

This ad for write-in candidate Agnes T. Frog ran in the Lawrence Journal-World on Nov. 3, 1986.

But by April of 1994, there was a thought much of that sort of controversy was in the rearview mirror. But then county officials got word that there were concerns that there hadn’t been an adequate study done to determine the impacts the road would have on adjacent Haskell Indian Nations University. In a rather low-key moment, county commissioners decided to stop construction planning for the eastern leg of the trafficway while a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement was conducted. Commissioners said they would start construction on the western leg of the road, and suspected the study would be done about the time they would be ready to start construction on the eastern leg.

“We thought we would have a little time out on that issue, and it ended up being more than 20 years,” said Buhler, who served on the County Commission from 1990 to 1998 and then served two years as a Republican state senator.

In layman’s terms, key federal regulators never were able to agree on a route for the SLT as part of the new study. The state and county tried to build the road without the blessing of federal regulators, but a court ruled against the road builders. The project was at a stalemate as proponents of the road tried to negotiate a settlement with opponents.

Buhler served during what was one of the more contentious and divisive times of the project. You can still hear some of the scars in his statements.

“It was frustrating to me because I really did think there was opportunity for all the sides to win something,” Buhler said. “But they didn’t all see it that way. For some, no progress was a victory.

“For those who didn’t want the trafficway to happen, they had 20 great years, if that is how they want to see it.”

The debate did produce some positives, Buhler said.

“It gave me a better perspective of how lucky we are to be in Lawrence and to have the opportunities we have,” Buhler said. “There are a lot of areas of the state that really would have loved to have the investment the state was fighting to make in Lawrence.”

How the community has healed since the road project became a reality is a bit unclear to Buhler. Buhler, who for most of his time in office was a real estate executive, still bristles at some of the old arguments, such as the one that the road wasn’t about moving traffic but rather was about spurring development.

“A lot of people said it was a developer’s road,” Buhler said. “That will not prove to be the case. You wouldn’t have picked that route if you were trying to be a developer. You would have built it farther south. That would have given you a lot more land to work with.”

Some environmentalists argue the opposite today: The southern route — somewhere south of the Wakarusa River — would have been the more environmentally responsible one, but Lawrence power brokers wouldn’t allow it.

The arguments are less fierce than they used to be. How long they will go into the future is also unclear. Buhler has a theory that the road project will be viewed much differently by future generations than it was during the heat of the moment.

“It cost a lot more time and money than we ever thought it would,” Buhler said, “but it is going to be really helpful for the type of community we are and the community we want to be.”

Dan Wildcat arrived at Haskell in 1986, just as lovers of the wetlands were starting to become vocal about the road project. Wildcat, a professor of indigenous and American Indian studies and a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation, has a different view of how the road project will be remembered.

“I think this will go down in the annals of environmental history as a mistake,” he said.

The wetlands have long held dual significance for Haskell. Students there appreciate the environmental diversity of the wetlands, but the area also has deep cultural significance. The wetlands were part of the campus when Haskell was a Native American boarding school where children were sent to assimilate into Anglo culture. The wetlands area is often where those homesick children would go to practice their religion and Native American beliefs.

The combination of the wetlands’ environmental diversity and the history of these particular wetlands has Wildcat convinced the community missed an opportunity.

“We missed the opportunity to have a real education and tourist opportunity,” Wildcat said. “It could have been the wetlands version of New York’s Central Park.”

Wildcat certainly spoke against the road project over the years, but much of the opposition involved Haskell students. Wildcat’s primary role was to serve as a mentor. He said he’s proud of how those students conducted themselves, and he’s equally proud of what Haskell students are doing today.

In this file photo from September 2002, more than 700 people wait for the beginning of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' public hearing on the South Lawrence Trafficway at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds.

Haskell students are working on long-term plans and grant applications to convert the Haskell portion of the wetlands into a more biologically diverse ecosystem and one that will be more accessible to the public. He said despite the road running through the wetlands, the area is no less sacred to Haskell.

“I think the students have taken the attitude that their responsibilities are really great now,” Wildcat said. “You can’t just walk away from this site after all of this.”

Although the end result isn’t what Wildcat wanted, he said he easily can recognize some positives that have come out of the debate. Awareness of Native American issues increased as a result of the project. He said it is rare to go anywhere in “Indian Country” without someone knowing of the SLT controversy. He points to the Dakota pipeline controversy underway now as evidence that the general public better understands the importance of Native American cultural sites.

“They are defending a sacred site, and that seems to resonate fairly easily with the general public today,” Wildcat said. “I wonder if the trafficway project were starting today whether the result would be different.”

It is, of course, impossible to know. But Wildcat is betting that the South Lawrence Trafficway project will play a role in future debates about Native American rights for decades to come. He proudly notes that several of the students who led the opposition are now finishing up doctoral degrees and are still passionate about advancing indigenous causes.

“A struggle like this can be such a formative aspect of a person’s personality,” Wildcat said. “I would say, overall for our students, we didn’t get the outcome we wanted, but, my, did they learn some life lessons.”

There was a time that Bob Eye — a local attorney for roadway opponents — should have felt victory in the SLT debate, but he never allowed himself to believe it.

The time was sometime after March of 2000. Remember that environmental study the county agreed to start in 1994? Well, the study was finally completed in March 2000. The report concluded the trafficway shouldn’t be built.

That sure sounds like victory for a roadway opponent. Eye even remembers sitting on a panel with the Kansas Department of Transportation’s chief counsel and hearing him say that the trafficway project was “dead.”

“I thought ‘no, this is like Dracula. It is going to come back,'” Eye said.

In April 2001, KDOT officials did announce a new proposal. It introduced what would end up being the most important number in the SLT saga: 32. For years, the plan was to build the South Lawrence Trafficway on a route that followed 31st Street, which would put the road on property owned by Haskell Indian Nations University. The new proposal called for building the road a bit farther to the south on a route that was dubbed 32nd Street. The road would still go through the wetlands, but the change meant it would be on property owned by Baker University.

In this file photo from April 2008, the Baker Wetlands are shown, with 31st Street bordering the area to the right. At the time, federal regulators were working on the last pieces of paperwork needed to give final approval of a controversial South Lawrence Trafficway route that would run through the area.

Baker University struck a multimillion dollar mitigation deal as part of the project: The state would build approximately 300 acres of man-made wetlands to replace the approximately 55 acres of wetlands that the road project would occupy. Baker would receive an endowment to care for the entire wetlands, and a new wetland Discovery Center also would be built and operated by Baker.

Eye and roadway opponents filed a federal lawsuit against the 32nd Street plan as well, but this time the federal courts did not side with the opponents. In July 2012, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals said the road could be built, and it became clear the U.S. Supreme Court wasn’t going to hear an argument in the matter.

For all intents and purposes, that is when the fight ended. Eye disagrees with the outcome, but respects the ruling. He said he now waits and watches how several key elements of the project will play out. One of the most important, he said, is how the history of the project will be written.

“If the history of this is written in a careful way, it will be hard to see how indigenous people’s interests weren’t pushed to the side here,” Eye said.

Eye said he’s not sure enough people adequately understood the larger context of the SLT debate. For many indigenous people, the project was seen as just one more concession they were being asked to make. Plus, non-natives rarely understood the importance that a sense of place has in Native American culture and religion, Eye said.

But beyond all that, Eye said the roadway project smacked of an unfair deal for opponents. A tenet of the deal was that the mitigation project would work and that the 300 acres of man-made wetlands would grow to become something vibrant and beautiful.

“The idea of mitigation isn’t much of a consolation prize if it doesn’t work out,” Eye said. “That was always one of the problems opponents had. There was always this level of uncertainty of whether mitigation would work, but there was never any uncertainty that wetlands would be lost.”

The mitigation project is well underway. The wetland Discovery Center is open, and plants are growing and animals are being attracted to the man-made wetlands. But Eye said it is still far too early in the maturation of the wetlands to know whether the man-made areas will truly thrive.

He hopes they do. It would be a shame to get the road and not get the benefits of the mitigation, he said. Eye hopes for a lot but remains cautious about what will actually develop. For instance, he would like to think that the SLT project will be a cautionary tale for other road projects in environmentally sensitive areas. But although he thinks the SLT did produce important case law, he said he thinks a paradigm shift still needs to occur, especially as it relates to the “article of faith that we can build our way out of transportation problems.”

Eye may be slightly more optimistic that the trafficway debate has left an impression in Lawrence. He hopes the community remembers the debate, and reflects on how it unfolded.

“What I hope is that over time everybody will appreciate everybody else’s position on this in a more comprehensive way,” Eye said. “This won’t be the last time that we are faced with protecting or losing an important natural asset. We will face this issue innumerable times.”

Perhaps it is the beginning of a punchline: How many politicians does it take to build a bypass project in Lawrence? The answer is too difficult to calculate. What’s easier is to keep track of the bureaucrats who were tasked with carrying out the will of the political leaders.

Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug has to be at or near the top of the list of longest-serving. When Weinaug began his post as county administrator in 1992, there wasn’t a lot of thought that the trafficway project would consume much of the administrator’s time. There would be the standard review of construction and paperwork as there is with any road. As it turns out, it would be impossible to count the number of hours Weinaug would spend working on the project.

Recently, Weinaug said his feelings at Friday’s ribbon-cutting would be complicated.

“I have lots of mixed feelings about the completion of the trafficway,” Weinaug said. “There is a piece of me thinking, ‘Yes, this is finally done.’ There is another piece of me that says this is the best or worst example of what happens when a community can’t find consensus. One side wins and another loses, and that always will be a disappointment to me.”

(As a side note, Weinaug did not attend Friday’s ribbon cutting. He was still recovering from a bicycle accident that occurred earlier in the week.)

A word that Weinaug uses to describe the trafficway project is “intractable.” He said he doesn’t believe there is much more the community could have done to try to reach a consensus on the project.

“There are so many people who have been on both sides of this issue,” Weinaug said. “They all love Lawrence and Douglas County. They just have different visions of what Lawrence and Douglas County should be.”

The attempts at compromise, however, will pay dividends. Weinaug said the wetlands Discovery Center is an incredible asset to the community, and the new wetlands are too, plus the bike paths, trails and public access that were built into the project.

The Baker Wetlands Discovery Center, 1365 North 1250 Road

But still, Weinaug does not aim to convince anyone that the project ended up being a win-win proposition. Ultimately, he said — and others have echoed it — the South Lawrence Trafficway project ended up being an illustration of what can happen when passionate people collide. Lawrence is full of passionate people, and most days that is an asset.

“The flip side of that passion in a community, though, is it makes resolutions like this very, very difficult,” he said.

As for what the future holds, Weinaug largely demurs on the benefits or detriments the completed road will create. It is best left to the elected leaders and others to surmise whether the shorter travel times and the regional transportation improvements have been worth it all, he said. Plus, there likely will be more political battles to come, such as what development should be allowed along the road, especially at the three interchanges on the eastern leg.

How those battles, and others unforeseen, unfold will be worth watching. Will they be as divisive? Will compromise be any more attainable? In short, did the South Lawrence Trafficway argument change Lawrence?

“We are a different community than we were 24 years ago, but how much of that is connected to the trafficway I don’t know,” Weinaug said. “I do know that we are more polarized now than we were. I don’t know if that is the SLT or just part of a national trend. It doesn’t matter what has caused it. We need to deal with it.”

SLT Timeline

• November 1990: County residents vote 13,679 to 10,815 in support of $4 million in bonds for the South Lawrence Trafficway. The bond election is challenged in court but is ultimately upheld by the Kansas Supreme Court in July 1992.

• April 1994: The Douglas County Commission stops construction planning for the eastern leg of the trafficway and orders a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to study possible impacts the road may have on adjacent Haskell Indian Nations University.

• November 1996: The western nine miles of the SLT open to traffic.

• 1998: A federal judge halts work on the project until a Supplemental Impact Statement is completed on the project.

• March 2000: The final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement is released and recommends that the roadway not be built.

• April 2001: KDOT officials make public a proposal to build the trafficway along a 32nd Street route, which would move the road off Haskell Indian Nations University property.

• May 2008: After years of design and study, the final federal permit for the SLT project is issued.

• October 2008: Area environmentalists, Haskell students and members of an area Native American tribe file a federal lawsuit to block construction of the trafficway through the Baker Wetlands.

• November 2010: A federal judge rules the SLT has the necessary federal permits to begin construction through the wetlands.

• June 2011: State commits $192 million in funding to complete the South Lawrence Trafficway.

• July 2012: The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the federal court ruling on a 3-0 vote to allow the trafficway project to proceed.

• Sept. 2013: The Kansas Department of Transportation accepts a $129.8 million bid from Missouri-based Emery Sapp & Sons Inc. to build the South Lawrence Trafficway.

• Nov. 4, 2016: State and local officials hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the road.

• Nov. 9, 2016: The road is scheduled to open for traffic.