Editorial: Local money likely needed to make South Lawrence Trafficway safer

Lawrence Journal-World editorials

A dangerous game is being played at the Youth Sports Complex in western Lawrence. It has nothing to do with the play on the soccer, baseball and football fields at the complex. Rather, the dangers come from motorists — and occasional pedestrians — trying to enter and leave the facility via the South Lawrence Trafficway.

Essentially, the sole entrance to the complex is at the intersection of West 27th Street/Wakarusa Drive and the SLT. The two-lane section of the SLT has become a frightful road. It is`almost always an uncomfortable route for motorists, as the two-lane design is becoming overwhelmed by traffic. Now that the Kasold Drive intersection has been closed, the 27th/Wakarusa intersection is the most dangerous on the route.

The Journal-World in December reported the western leg of the SLT had produced 53 accidents in 20 months, with 20 of them at the 27th Street/Wakarusa Drive intersection. That is one high-speed accident a month at an intersection often filled with families and children.

Fortunately, leaders at the Kansas Department of Transportation recognize the perils of the road. Engineers understand that the western leg of the SLT needs to be four lanes. Unfortunately, a recent briefing reminded city commissioners that solutions for the road are far in the future, if at all. Even under an ideal scenario where funding materializes quickly, a better road built by the state is probably eight years away.

That timeline should cause city leaders to examine what they can do now to improve the safety of the intersection. One possibility is to close the eastern leg of the intersection, meaning the neighborhood to the east of the SLT would not have direct access to the trafficway. It would significantly reduce the number of motorists who use that intersection, hopefully making it safer.

The idea would be unpopular with the residents who live in that neighborhood for obvious reasons. In order to access the trafficway, those residents would have to use the Clinton Parkway interchange, which is about a two-mile drive.

But the city must decide how dangerous this intersection really is. Whenever there is an accident it gets much discussion, but then the urgency to do something dies as time passes. Doing something likely will require swallowing a difficult dose of reality.

The city ought to look at an even more difficult project. The city should partner with the county to study the idea of expanding Wakarusa Drive to the south. The county has recommended such a study, including a full interchange that would be funded by the state, with local roads serving the Youth Sports Complex and other areas.

The city and county, though, should consider how likely a full interchange is for that area. City commissioners were reminded that even if state funding is granted for a four-lane expansion, the funding likely will not be enough to do everything the community would like. The state has suggested the community could volunteer to have the SLT become a toll road to help pay for additional projects.

That should be a nonstarter for the community. A tolled SLT would put Lawrence dangerously close to being surrounded by toll roads — the Kansas Turnpike to the north and the SLT to the west and south. That is a moat a community does not want to build.

Rather, the community should study how it can spend its own money to make the road safer. How much would building a bridge over the trafficway at Wakarusa Drive cost? That would allow the dangerous intersection to be closed entirely. Access to the Youth Sports Complex would be less convenient, but that might be part of the price to be paid for a safer road.

There are probably other options to study as well, such as extending and improving the existing road through the Clinton Outlet Park to provide a new entrance to the sports complex.

The first step, though, is for community leaders to decide they are willing to have some skin in the game. It would be appropriate because there is already too much blood on the road.

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