LAWRENCE — Construction could begin within weeks on a highway project in Lawrence that has been the subject of debate and litigation for more than 20 years, according to state transportation officials.
The Kansas Department of Transportation is scheduled to award bids for the South Lawrence Trafficway on Sept. 18, and construction on the $190 million project is expected to begin by mid-October or November, said Jonathan Marburger, project manager for the transportation department.
The state has been trying to build the highway in south Lawrence since the early 1990s as a way to divert highway and truck traffic around Lawrence. Once completed, the 14-mile route will connect Interstate 70 with Kansas 10. If construction begins in the fall, the project could be completed by the fall of 2016, Marburger said.
Marburger said some of the first work will likely occur in the Baker Wetlands, an area that has been the center of the debate.
Opponents have said the project will damage the wetlands and is disrespectful of the spiritual importance the wetlands have to Native American groups. Opponents filed numerous lawsuits and held protests to delay the project.
The opponents were careful when asked if protests are planned when the work begins, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.
“If there is a protest planned, I don’t think I would want to discuss it in the newspaper now,” said Michael Caron, leader of the Save the Wakarusa Wetlands organization. “I think it is very fair to say that it (construction) won’t go unmarked.”
Marburger said state officials aren’t making special plans for possible protests when construction begins.
“We'll just work with our contractor and our public-involvement professionals to respond to whatever may come up,” Marburger said. “If people want to do something to speak out, we are hopeful they will do it in a civil way.”
The project includes a $20 million mitigation program to add about 260 acres of new wetlands to the area and establish an endowment for Baker University to care for the property.
City officials hope the highway will boost the city’s economy, particularly attracting tenants to a new industrial park being built on Lawrence’s eastern edge.
“I’m in a business where it is easy to overstate,” City Manager David Corliss told city commissioners recently. “But I think it is very difficult to overstate the importance of this project to the community.”