Lawrence City Commission approves pedestrian tunnel at 19th and Iowa

photo by: Nick Krug

This file photo from 2013 shows the intersection of 19th and Iowa Streets, near the University of Kansas' West Campus.

The Lawrence City Commission at its meeting Tuesday approved a plan to fund a $2 million bicycle and pedestrian tunnel under the intersection of 19th and Iowa streets.

City Engineer Dave Cronin told commissioners an underpass would improve safety for those crossing the intersection. Cronin said the city is considering a design with two tunnels, which he said would benefit the entire community.

“You’re able to cross Iowa here at this grade-separated crossing and continue on 19th Street, whether you are going to KU, or the high school, or the downtown, or wherever your destination may be,” Cronin said.

The city has been awarded a $1.6 million transportation grant to pay for 80 percent of the project’s cost, and the remaining $400,000 will be split between the city and the University of Kansas. The university will also donate the required right-of-way for the project.

The underpass would connect KU’s West Campus with the new Central District. It would also connect the city’s shared-use path on the west side of Iowa Street with the shared-use path that will soon be added to the north side of 19th Street.

Cronin said he’s gotten questions about whether a pedestrian bridge would be a safer or less expensive alternative to a tunnel. He said a bridge — which would have to be at least 16 feet above the street and include accessible ramps– would not be “an economical solution” because of the intersection’s location atop a hill.

“You come up 19th, you come up Iowa and you’re at the top of this elevation,” Cronin said. “To then bridge over, you would need to start a bridge a long distance back, and it’d be a very long bridge.”

Commissioner Matthew Herbert said residents’ biggest concern has been safety. Herbert asked a police officer present at the meeting whether there have been any incidents in the city’s other tunnels, which include two under Sixth Street and one under Louisiana Street. The officer, who has been with the department 21 years, said there have been no incidents.

Herbert said the city’s experience with tunnels was important for residents to consider.

“We’ve done this; this isn’t brand new,” Herbert said. “And in 21 years of police experience, we can’t cite an example of somebody getting into an unsafe situation as a result of such infrastructure. That helps put my mind at ease.”

Cronin said tunnel length and lighting would also be considered. As opposed to one long tunnel that cuts diagonally across the intersection, Cronin said the city is looking at two shorter tunnels, one of which would cross under Iowa Street and the other under 19th Street.

Commissioners voted unanimously to accept the grant and agreed that lighting should be included in the tunnel’s design. Commissioner Mike Amyx said he thinks it’s “an absolute” that the design maximize natural light and include electric lighting. Other commissioners agreed, and Mayor Leslie Soden said she would also like to consider adding cameras.

Design plans will be considered in coming months and construction of the tunnel would coincide in part with the reconstruction of 19th Street, scheduled for summer 2018.

In other business, the commission:

• Voted unanimously to authorize a comprehensive housing market study that will provide insight on the city’s affordable housing shortage. The study will cost about $80,000, and it will collect and analyze data on the city’s housing market and provide recommendations for addressing the shortage.

• Received a presentation about new criminal justice programs in Douglas County, including a house arrest program and behavioral health court. The presentation was provided by Robert Bieniecki, the county’s criminal justice coordinator.