Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday voted to give Douglas County millions in funding for a road project, but with the caveat that the funds are not to go toward an extension of Wakarusa Drive south of city limits.
Douglas County has been pushing for the city to agree to pay for the proposed South Wakarusa Extension. The extension would continue the road south for about a mile and a half from where it currently ends near the South Lawrence Trafficway.
The city commission over the summer set aside funding in the city budget for road construction to match funds from the Kansas Department of Transportation. KDOT funds will allow for the expansion of the west leg of the SLT (aka Kansas Highway 10 between the interchanges at U.S. 59 Highway/Iowa Street and North 1800 Road) to four lanes.
City commissioners voted Tuesday to approve giving the county the $3.6 million in funding that would have been its share of the Wakarusa extension, but that the funds will go toward a different, specific project that is yet to be decided.
Commissioners heard from nearly two dozen community members, including multiple Haskell Indian Nations University professors and students, opposed to the Wakarusa extension. Many cited concerns for the wetlands, the environment and potential for pollution, and the injustices and oppression that Indigenous people have faced for centuries.
“Local leadership must look to Indigenous knowledgeholders and experts in the Haskell community, because we stewarded this place successfully for thousands of years,” Alex Kimball Williams, a Haskell environmental science graduate and longtime Lawrencian who has been involved in wetlands advocacy efforts, said during public comment. “But in 250 years, there has been built so many roads, focused on business and not people — and yet focused on people instead of nature.”
Commissioner Courtney Shipley spoke against the project. She asked about KDOT’s history of adhering to environmental impact studies.
Bridgett Chapin, an aquatic ecologist and professor at Haskell in attendance at the meeting, awarded KDOT a grade of F on that subject. But she also pointed out that the Wakarusa extension project had not yet undergone such a study.
“Here, we haven’t had the environmental impact and we’re making a decision. This does not make sense,” Chapin said. “We have to understand the environmental impact before we make a road.”
Shipley recited goals from the city’s strategic plan, saying the city considers the environmental consequences of “every decision, big and small, knowing that our actions have impacts beyond our boundaries. We protect and restore our ecosystem to make it healthier and balanced for future generations.”
“Nobody sent me here to build that road. It’s not even in city limits; I’m not responsible for it,” Shipley said. “If the county would like to partner with us on a completely different project, I would love to have that conversation. But this was not the appropriate project for us.”
Mayor Lisa Larsen said she didn’t want to spend money on a project that was outside of city limits, which was another concern several community members shared.
City staff members had provided the commission with three possible options — fund the extension; decline to provide funding and risk failing to meet KDOT’s request for local participation; or agree to provide $1 million to construct a shared-use path along the extension, which would have met KDOT’s request:20230207-Wakarusa-extension
Commissioners chose their alternative option — providing $3.6 million, but with stipulations that it not go toward the extension — on a 4-1 vote.
Larsen was the sole vote opposed to the commission’s final motion because it did not specifically state that the TBD project would be within city limits.