After a 20-year legal slugfest, work is about to start on one of Kansas’ biggest and most controversial highway projects.
The South Lawrence Trafficway overcame years of resistance from environmentalists and American Indians. Now work could start as early as October on a six-mile stretch of four-lane highway that will complete a loop around Lawrence.
The firestorm over the project has been centered in Lawrence, but the bypass could hold as much impact for Johnson County drivers. It promises a new shortcut from southern parts of the Kansas City area to Interstate 70 west of Lawrence. The road should open in 2016.
The highway links Kansas 10 east of Lawrence to a segment of the same highway that was opened on the west side of the city in 1998. When finished, the 70 mph bypass will let drivers dodge traffic on clogged streets in Lawrence.
Hot and heavy over the years, the battle over the highway pitted the 21st century needs of economic development and commuting against preserving wetlands and protecting American Indian culture. It has been a debate spiced with mystery about secret burials.
The Kansas Department of Transportation expects to award the contract for the project this month. It was estimated to cost $150 million, but bids opened last week came in as low as $129.8 million.
Still, such news is tempered by stubborn resistance. The Sierra Club called the loop one of the 50 worst transportation projects in the country.
“It’s another example of short-sighted exploitation of fragile and limited natural resources,” said Sierra Club lawyer Bob Eye.
Highway supporters, including members of Congress, see big benefits: an estimated $3.7 billion economic impact, less congestion in the center of Lawrence and an easier commute from Kansas City to Topeka.
“It’s a big, big, big deal for Lawrence and for all of northeast Kansas,” said Matt Hoy, former chairman of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. “The South Lawrence Trafficway is going to be a real lifeline for economic growth.”
Throughout the years, the project has enjoyed broad support across the region from the cities of Overland Park and Lenexa, Leavenworth County and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
The project has been on the design table since the 1980s, first proposed as a two-lane county road costing about $30 million.
It gained traction when the Kansas Legislature passed multi-year transportation plans that made more money available for highways. The project is now funded by part of a penny sales tax increase approved by the Legislature in 2010.
But early on, the highway had problems. It ran into legal hurdles in the early 1990s that lasted until 2012, when the project was finally upheld by a federal appeals court.
“The South Lawrence Trafficway is long overdue,” said U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, who has championed the project for years.
At the heart of the debate has been Haskell Indian Nations University, historically significant because it was part of a network of boarding schools for Indian children run by the government after the Civil War.
Haskell opened in 1884 as a place where Indian children, uprooted from their homes, were sent to be assimilated — or “civilized” — into Anglo culture. Today, Haskell is a four-year university for Native Americans with 1,000 students each semester.
The highway is seen by some as intruding on historic Indian land because of Haskell’s past association with efforts to wipe away tribal cultural influences in Indian children, many who are thought to have been buried in the wetlands.
It will cross 57 acres of wetlands that were on school property years ago but were turned over to Baker University in 1968. The area is now used for field research and education programs in wetlands biology.
“I am outraged this community is so blind to the importance of this place to Native Americans,” said Michael Caron, one of the opponents of the project.
“There are so few places connected with the Indian boarding school movement and that whole era of cultural genocide that are still left,” he said. “They’ve been turned into shopping malls, airports, golf courses, housing developments and highways all over the country.”
Caron argues that the highway will separate what is now the Haskell campus from land to the south that once provided refuge for American Indian children to practice their culture, whether it was praying or speaking their native language.
“There are so many ways that wetland was part of preserving native culture,” he said.
As the project evolved, Haskell students, faculty and alumni argued that the wetlands were sacred because they believe that children were buried there after they died from disease, suicide or even abuse at the school.
State consultants examined the reports and concluded in 2001 that evidence did not support claims of systematic burials in the wetlands.
Millicent Pepion, who earned her associate’s degree at Haskell, is among those worried about how the highway will affect the cultural significance of the land. Last year, Pepion — of Blackfeet and Navajo heritage — led a walk from Lawrence to Washington to show support for the wetlands.
“I think anybody who has had anything to do with this case is heartbroken,” said Pepion, now a student at Arizona State University.
She worries what might happen if human remains are unearthed during construction.
“If they do find bodies, are they going to tell anybody or are they going to have enough dignity to acknowledge that children were buried there?”
Highway department officials said they would take special precautions to minimize damage to the wetlands.
The road will be constructed so underlying soil is not disturbed, and Native American observers have been invited to be present during any excavation activities in the wetlands.
The state has signed an agreement with the federal government that requires highway builders to stop the project if human remains are found.
They would have to protect the area from further disturbance and notify police and the state archaeologist.
“We’re just trying to be sensitive to the cultural concerns out there,” said Jonathan Marburger, project manager for the state highway department.
The state also is spending at least $13 million constructing 304 acres of wetlands on adjoining property plus 16 acres of wooded area along the Wakarusa River and 37 acres of grassland.
About $9 million of that money will be set aside in an endowment that will go toward caring for the wetlands. An additional $1.5 million will pay for a wetland education and research center.
“We went through a rigorous, comprehensive analysis and assessment and ultimately the conclusion was that the South Lawrence Trafficway could be built,” said Jerry Younger, deputy state transportation secretary.
Looking back, some opponents said they thought it would be difficult to turn back the highway. But others had hope.
“It’s a battle that we fought … to maintain our sacred responsibilities to this Earth,” said Henrietta Mann, a former Haskell teacher. “I thought someone would be respectful of our views of the world.”