Work has started on a controversial highway that’s expected to give Kansas City drivers a shortcut around Lawrence but that opponents say will cross sacred Indian ground.
Workers are clearing vegetation in the path of the four-lane, six-mile South Lawrence Trafficway, one of the state’s biggest highway projects.
The highway will complete a loop around Lawrence, linking Kansas 10 on the east side of the city to a completed portion of the highway on the west side.
The bypass is intended to relieve congested city streets that become clogged when regional traffic passing through Lawrence mixes with city drivers.
Project managers hope to turn dirt as early as this week, but that could be delayed by last week’s cold weather that slowed the clearing work.
“Winter’s kind of hit us a little early. It’s a little colder sooner than we’ve expected,” said Steve Baalman, the area engineer for the Kansas Department of Transportation who’s overseeing the project.
The project is expected to cost roughly $130 million, not counting the purchase of land and other engineering-related expenses. It will take three years to build.
K-10 traffic on the east side of the city probably will not be affected by the project until 2016, when the existing highway is tied into the new alignment that will run on the south side of the city, Baalman said.
Cities, counties and business leaders throughout the area have supported the new highway, touting it as a vital cog in the region’s transportation network.
But the highway is seen by others as intruding on sacred land that once was part of Haskell Indian Nations University, which opened in 1884 as a place where Indian children were sent to be assimilated into Anglo culture.
The road will cross 57 acres of wetlands that were on the school’s grounds years ago but were turned over to Baker University in 1968.
Haskell students, faculty and alumni argued the wetlands are sacred because they believe that Indian children were once buried there.
“This is a time for mourning, not celebration,” project opponent Mike Caron said in an email Sunday. “So many Indians I know feel they are losing a relative, not just a ‘place,’ but a living thing that is sacred.”
Highway crews are planning to approach the project cautiously. Instead of excavating in the wetland, they will use fill to build a levy-type platform that will carry the road across the wetlands, Baalman said.
“The way we’re building through the wetlands, what we’re doing in the wetlands is very unique technical construction for us,” he said.
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.
Native American observers also have been invited to be present during any excavation activities in the wetlands.