County leaders ask Lawrence to reconsider funding contribution for project to extend roadway over Wakarusa River

photo by: Douglas County

A Douglas County map shows a proposed Wakarusa Drive extension, the white line running south from Kansas Highway 10, which would connect the roadway to County Route 458.

Douglas County leaders are asking their counterparts at the City of Lawrence to reconsider their previously expressed desire to pull back from a project that would extend Wakarusa Drive south of Lawrence through an undeveloped area and build a bridge over the Wakarusa River.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will consider a request from Douglas County to help fund the Wakarusa Drive extension project. Douglas County Commission Chair Shannon Reid wrote a letter to city leaders speaking to the benefits of the project for both local governments and asking the City Commission to clarify how it would like to proceed.

“As you know, the project extends along the city limits and connects two city recreational facilities to local roads and state highways,” Reid wrote. “This project has long been included in both Douglas County and the City of Lawrence’s Capital Improvement Plans and other planning documents.”

A previous version of the city’s five-year capital improvement plan included the city paying 40%, or $4.12 million, toward the Wakarusa Drive extension, as well as about $2.5 million to reconstruct a section of the existing road from 27th Street to Clinton Parkway and another $384,000 for curb and storm sewer work on East 900 Road. Then-mayor Courtney Shipley and then-Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen (Larsen is now mayor) expressed environmental concerns about the extension project during the commission’s budget process last summer, and in August a majority of the commission asked that the city remove a commitment to fund the extension project in particular as part of a local match related to the Kansas Department of Transportation’s expansion of the South Lawrence Trafficway. In addition to environmental concerns, Larsen also said she didn’t think the city should be paying for an extension that would be a county road beyond city limits.

The project would extend Wakarusa Drive south of Lawrence through the undeveloped area and connect the roadway to County Route 458. Groups with environmental concerns, including the Sunrise Movement, Lawrence Ecology Teams United in Sustainability, and some other community members have expressed opposition to the project. Concerns included the environmental impact of the project on the river and ecosystem.

However, some commissioners said the city needed to consider additional information. Bart Littlejohn, who is now vice mayor, 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.

Since then, the county voted to fund the project despite the city withdrawing its commitment to fund the project. The Douglas County Commission voted in November to adopt the county’s next five-year Capital Improvement Plan, which includes the project, as the Journal-World reported. 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. The extension project now has a revised cost estimate of $9 million compared to the previous estimate of $10.31 million.

The county lays out multiple funding scenarios, including the city contributing 40% of the construction cost of the extension project, now assumed at $3.6 million, and a total city contribution of $6.46 million. The memo states that level of city participation would satisfy KDOT’s request for a local funding match related to the SLT project. Another scenario is the city not contributing toward the extension but contributing $1 million so that a shared-use path can be included with the project, which the memo states would also meet KDOT’s matching requirement. The county removed the shared-use path from the project to reduce costs.

The Lawrence City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.


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