Ever since Agnes T. Frog made a run for the county commission nearly twenty years ago, the issue of the alignment of the South Lawrence Trafficway in the vicinity of the Baker Wetlands has been a continuous subject of debate. Dr. Roger Boyd, the administrator of the wetlands, ignited the debate in these pages by suggesting that that the proposed 32nd Street alignment would be in the best interest of the wetlands. I agree with Dr. Boyd’s assessment, and believe that a south of the river alignment does not avoid the impacts to the wetlands.
Twenty years ago, the SLT was seen as a â€œmagic bulletâ€ that will solve the problems with 23rd Street that existed even then. Today, it is clear that the trafficway would not become that end all solution to 23rd; however, it certainly won’t hurt anything. KDOT’s primary goal with completing the SLT is to separate through K-10 traffic from the ever-increasing local load. Both alternatives would call for future traffic levels on 23rd to still be slightly higher than current levels, compared to forecasts that call for traffic to increase by about 50% – 100% if no action is taken.
Growth south of the Wakarusa River was also seen as an impossibility in the 1980’s, as the state would not approve a wastewater treatment plant on the Wakarusa. Though the state is more receptive to a sewer plant, plans for development south of the river are still in their formative stage. Even with only one access point proposed south of the river, placing the trafficway there will exacerbate development that is less the optimally planned. Placing the trafficway along 32nd would be less likely to interfere with planning than 42nd Street would. Any additional road infrastructure to eventually serve the planned development would likely be in the form of widening of existing roadway, not a â€œsecond bypassâ€ that some have suggested.
When Baker received the property, the fact that most of the area had been drained is not disputed. The actions taken by the Boyd family to restore the wetlands to a functional quality state are certainly worth mentioning. The proposed mitigation for the 32nd Street alternative would be to create expanded wetland areas to the east and west of the current property. Considering the history of the area, bringing newly-restored area up to the quality of the remainder of the wetlands has a fairly good chance to succeed. The mitigation project also removes otherwise developable land from production. Building the roadway along 42nd Street would bring urban encroachment to the wetlands, with the associated light and noise pollution. Implementing the proposed expansion of the wetlands would relieve the encroachment; however, it would effectively mean that the 42nd Street alternative is not a true alternative to avoid impacts to the wetlands. Safety, efficiency, land use, and cost factors tip the scales back toward 32nd Street.
Although technically a separate project, the proposed widening and extension of 31st Street as a four-lane arterial road is invariably tied to the SLT. With the 32nd Street alignment, 31st will be rebuilt and the SLT constructed next to each other on a common fill. Should the trafficway be built on 42nd, the wetlands controversy would be shifted to 31st. Haskell University has express a desire for the existing right of way to be vacated and reverted back to Haskell. Closing the road would divert most of the traffic that would be using 31st back to 23rd, which would negate most of the traffic taken off 23rd by a 42nd Street SLT, and would run counter to the current transportation plan. Haskell would oppose any move to widen the road in the existing Right of Way, as it is contrary to their desire to see it vacated. The only other reasonable option would be to place it in the Baker property, which require an Environmental Impact Statement. The wetlands supporters who currently oppose the 32nd Street alignment would likely also oppose the relocation of 31st.
The Baker Wetlands are not in danger of meeting the same fate as the Elkins Prairie. The suggestion made by â€œwetland supportersâ€ that the trafficway must go south of the river in order to protect the wetlands ring hollow and would only shift the controversy involving roads around the wetlands. There is no true route for the Trafficway that avoids the wetlands issue. 32nd Street is the best route available. The only thing holding the trafficway from being completed is the lack of cash to fund the project.
Richie Kennedy is a lifelong Lawrence Resident and the author of the â€œKansas Highwaysâ€ website, with information regarding the roads of Kansas, past and present.