Douglas County Commission adopts next 5-year Capital Improvement Plan, including funding for Wakarusa Drive extension

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The Douglas County Commission listens to public comment about the county's five-year Capital Improvement Plan during the commission's Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022 meeting.

The Douglas County Commission voted Wednesday to adopt the county’s next five-year Capital Improvement Plan, which includes a project that would extend Wakarusa Drive south of Lawrence and build a bridge over the Wakarusa River.

The project first surfaced as a combined effort between the city of Lawrence, the county and the Kansas Department of Transportation. The Lawrence City Commission pulled back from its plans to help pay for the road in late August, but the county has forged ahead. County leaders recently sent a letter to the City Commission asking for clarification about whether the city is sure that it won’t contribute any money toward the project. As the proposal currently stands, the county would be slated to contribute $9 million.

In part, county staff has framed the extension as a way to improve fire and medical response times in the area by about three minutes.

At the County Commission’s meeting on Wednesday, four community members voiced their opposition to the Wakarusa Drive project on behalf of environmental groups such as Lawrence Ecology Teams United in Sustainability. Some of them advocated for building another fire and medical station in the area, which they said would be comparable to the cost of the road project, as a way to avoid an environmental cost.

One of the commenters was Michael Almon, a community organizer with the Sustainability Action Network. Almon previously told the Journal-World that he thought the project would conflict with the goals the city and county laid out in their joint comprehensive plan, Plan 2040, and he reiterated those concerns and others at Wednesday’s meeting.

Commissioner Shannon Reid said she understood those concerns, but she and the other commissioners were also quick to push back. Reid said building another fire and medical station, for example, would carry a much larger ongoing expense because it would need to be staffed and filled with new equipment.

“It’s a much larger ongoing expense than a relatively small section of road and a new bridge built to new specs that would have to be maintained by our Public Works (Department),” Reid said. “I don’t think they are quite the same when you consider just a cost comparison.”

Fellow Commissioner Patrick Kelly, meanwhile, said that Plan 2040 is “filled with contradictions.” For example, he said, it calls for prioritizing the development of unused land within the city limits before expanding into rural areas, but also calls for creating an efficient and equitable transportation system. He said that would be hard to accomplish without undertaking projects like this one.

The CIP also includes some high-profile projects involving county buildings, including about $4.5 million allocated to projects remodeling all three floors of the Douglas County Courthouse and expanding the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center.

In other business, the commission:

• Heard an update on the status of the Treatment and Recovery Center of Douglas County.

Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky shared a list of nearly 30 deadlines and deliverables the county asked of Behavioral Health Partners, the nonprofit responsible for developing and managing the center, that remain outstanding. That list includes a number of legal documents, a website and more.

“I wish I could come to you today and say ‘We can get all this done in the next two weeks, and then we can set the date for opening,'” Plinsky said. “I don’t think we’re that close. My hope is that we’re close to being able to figure out how long it’s going to take us to get through some of these items and then come back with some more understanding of what that looks like.”

Commissioners also asked about the county’s current relationship with Connections Health Solutions, an Arizona-based behavioral health crisis center that county staff has been engaged in conversations with about managing the facility instead of BHP.

Plinsky said Connections continues to provide consulting services for the county, and that she’s afraid the ideas of the facility being managed locally and opening quickly are “at times in opposition.” The chair of BHP’s board, Cindy Yulich, told commissioners that board members have agreed that they may need to go to Connections for advice, but that they should only be engaged with the out-of-state company for as long as it brings value to the table.

• Started the process to designate a portion of North 1075 Road in Wakarusa Township as a “minimum-maintenance road.”

The half-mile segment of road, located near Greenbush Resource Center just south of Lawrence, crosses two large streams, which means it’s frequently submerged during and after heavy rainfall. Those crossings aren’t suitable for residential use or emergency access, according to Douglas County’s Public Works Department, and designating the road segment between those two crossings a minimum-maintenance road would eliminate the potential for residential uses along that segment.


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