City leaders pull back from plans to help pay for new road over Wakarusa River; county could still move forward
photo by: City of Lawrence
City leaders have pulled back on a proposed project that would extend Wakarusa Drive south of Lawrence through an undeveloped area and build a bridge over the Wakarusa River, but that doesn’t mean the project is out of the question.
The project is included in the city’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan, and the Lawrence City Commission discussed it as part of its 2023 budget process Tuesday evening. Previously, two commissioners expressed concerns about proceeding with the extension, and on Tuesday a majority of the commission asked that the city remove a commitment to fund that project in particular as part of a local match related to the expansion of the South Lawrence Trafficway.
Mayor Courtney Shipley and Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen have previously expressed environmental concerns about the project, and on Tuesday Shipley said that she thought there were other projects the city could use for the match. She emphasized that the area is not within the city’s expansion tier in the city and county’s most recent comprehensive plan, Plan 2040, meaning that area is not anticipated for growth in the next approximately 20 years.
“I just feel like there are other projects we could share with the county that would further Plan 2040 and (be) more consistent with what we have been moving toward,” Shipley said.
The Wakarusa Drive extension has been included in the city’s long-term transportation plans and was moved into the city’s CIP after the closure of Kasold Drive (East 1200 Road) at the SLT, according to a recent city staff memo. City staff recently said the extension would improve connectivity, noting that after Kasold was closed — the Kansas Department of Transportation closed it in 2018 due to accidents — the only routes from Lawrence to the area south of the city have been the Clinton Lake dam road or Iowa Street/U.S. Highway 59. Shipley said if the county wanted to expand access for those in that area, particularly for medical response, solutions existed other than building a road, such as providing closer ambulance service.
Shipley also pointed to a letter submitted to the commission from the Multimodal Transportation Commission, which recommended against moving forward with the project. She said the City Commission should take that recommendation seriously. The transportation commission laid out concerns related to the environmental impact of the project, the additional cost of maintaining the road into the future, and the extension’s inconsistencies with the area’s plans for growth.
The project would extend Wakarusa Drive south of Lawrence through the undeveloped area and connect the roadway to County Route 458. As the Journal-World previously reported, members of the Lawrence Sunrise Movement as well as other community members have also expressed concerns about the environmental impact of the project on the river and ecosystem. The CIP proposed by city staff included city funding for the extension of Wakarusa Drive in 2024 as part of a larger plan to spend $7 million on multiple local projects related to the SLT expansion. The spending is part of a $14 million local match that the Kansas Department of Transportation requires from the city and county.
Larsen said she didn’t think the city should be paying for an extension that would be a county road beyond city limits.
“My issue with this has largely been the fact that this is a county road; it’s not even in the city limits,” Larsen said. “And I just don’t think it’s appropriate for the city to be building roads for the county.”
However, Commissioner Bart Littlejohn said the city also had to consider the significant growth expected with the new Panasonic plant in nearby De Soto, which could mean the city could expand beyond its previous growth plans. Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said the commission was missing key pieces of information to make a decision, specifically whether the county would still move forward with the project without city funding and whether KDOT would accept city funding toward another project in lieu of the funding toward the Wakarusa extension.
“We are talking about a three-party agreement where we only have information from one side,” Finkeldei said. “We need information from the other two sides.”
Ultimately, the commission agreed that it needed that information and directed city staff to amend the project sheet for the city’s portion of the match to not specifically include funding for the Wakarusa extension. State funding to expand the portion of the SLT that is still only two lanes was recently announced, and KDOT expects to solicit construction bids in 2024. The $124 million project will expand the SLT to four lanes from the US-40 junction to the US-59/Iowa Street junction and construct a new interchange at the Wakarusa/27th Street intersection.